Jaimie Vernon_Viletones

For a year now folks on Facebook have been asking me to write a book about my work in a number of cemeteries. The process has begun. Last week, we shared Chapter One here in DBAWIS. This week we continue with the sneak preview. Here for your reading pleasure is CHAPTER TWO….


Cover Learning how to secure a cemetery seemed like an easy task on the surface. How hard could it be? You lock/unlock a few gates, you secure a few buildings and doors, you make sure no one’s locked inside the grounds and you go home.

My orientation took two days. The Beacon Hill Cemetery was the biggest municipal gravesite in the province. 12 square kilometres covering four major arterial roads – two of which sliced the cemetery into three sections. 51 separate gates, 17 buildings, and half a million dead souls counting on one person every day to make sure the place was left the way it was found albeit with a few more tenants.

You didn’t just walk around and fiddle with gates and doors. It was a military operation on a strict timetable to accommodate staff and visitors. And those timetables shifted based on the seasons. The opening of the cemetery stayed the same, but in the summer months the facility remained open past sundown and in the winter it closed at dinner time. Signs are posted at every entrance denoting this. Every straggler, every shut-in, and every person with suspicious motives, without fail, would claim they had no idea when the cemetery closed. I never believed any of them for a minute. These were locals and the cemetery had been there over 100 years. If you lived next door to a graveyard I would expect you to know its hours of operation…especially if there was a chance of getting locked inside of it. But we’ll get to those people soon enough.

The orientation and training was split into a morning shift on Day One and an evening shift on Day Two. Seven hours and eight hours respectively. The guard training me was nice enough to not ram everything down my throat in one day because a regular shift is 15 hours straight with two meal breaks. I was thankful for that. It allowed me to take notes. I filled 20 pages of a three-ringed binder and with good reason. The tasks for the guards required a degree in critical thinking and time management.

You had to have all the perimeter gates in the cemetery open so that the public could access the grounds before 7AM. That would include cyclists, joggers, dog walkers and people just trying to bisect the neighbourhood to get to transit or somewhere else for their jobs or appointments. In the early days of my watch I was arriving at 6AM just so I could refer to my notes and have time to think through the next steps.

But it meant getting up at 4:45 AM in the morning, heading to the security office, picking up my patrol car,  my itinerary work kit, my radio, and my site keys and battling traffic for nearly an hour. Usually in the dark. You just prayed there were no traffic accidents, construction or weather issues heading there because if you were late, the locals would complain to the cemetery bosses that security had not opened in time. It only happened once to me. As time went on I got faster opening and the grounds keepers – some who started as early as me – would open gates on my behalf saving me valuable time in getting my first round done.

As I said, there were 51 gates and the distance between the nearest and the farthest gate was about three kilometres as the crow flies. But in a car you can’t fly like a crow because the cemetery also contained 32 kilometres of roadway none of which lead directly from the back of the cemetery to the front. Most were winding, many dead ended and none of them were lit except where they were intersected by the major roads or led to a public building like an office, a mausoleum or the visitor centre. The patrol car featured a powerful spotlight on the roof that could spin 270 degrees. It would save my life on more than one occasion.

The front gate on Beacon Hill Road had to be opened first. It contained a lock box embedded in it with the keys to the cemetery. I had the key to the lock box. I can proudly say I never forgot it after leaving the security office in the morning. But, other guards did. At least one guard lost the key in a snow bank one night in the dark when locking up. That didn’t go well for him. I did three 15 hours shifts in a row, normally. The other four days of the week were divvied up between two other guards. The gent who trained me had health issues and didn’t work too many days in a row. But Billy was the best at what he did. I’m grateful to have had him as my teacher. He told me all the difficult parts of the job – including what staff members to tap-dance around and how to speed up patrols and fill out reports.
“Stay inconspicuous but make sure you’re visible when you need to be. The staff needs to know when they can call on you and the public needs to be reassured that there’s someone nearby if they run into trouble. In other words, stay out of the fucking way until you’re called on. Pick sniper points in the cemetery and don’t stay too long or they’ll think you’re having a nap. The grounds guys are your eyes. They’ll let you know if they see anything suspicious. Buy them coffee and they’ll be your friends for life.”

It sounded impossible. I was one guard in one car who had to be everywhere at once. How the hell was I going to do everything I needed to do every day and then reverse it all again at night for lock up? I couldn’t bend space and time. Or at least that’s what I thought on that first day of training.

At 6AM the cemetery is completely empty until the gates are open. That allowed me to drive at top speed. In this case that meant about 40 km/h amongst the graves and monuments where I would then jump out like a pizza delivery man and run to each gate where a master key would undo a padlock and then the rot-iron gate could be pushed or pulled into position, and tied off. Then it was onto the next one. The order in which the gates were opened would determine how quickly it could be done. It took months to get it down to an art form.

Not all the gates were near roads. Many times the car had to be parked and a small jog down a pathway led to the gate. And you jogged because time was of the essence. In the winter those pathways were covered in snow. Sometimes a foot deep. In the spring they were covered in mud. Billy showed me which of these pathways was wide enough to handle the patrol car. They were fairly flat access points and no gravestones were close by so there was no risk of damage. This would prove problematic on more than a few occasions but I’ll get to that later.

Oh, and did I mention I had to unlock and kill the security alarms on a number of buildings at the same time?  So the morning exercise was really a series of gate, gate, door, gate, door, gate, gate, door, door, door, gate, etc. And if you got to a door and the alarm had been tripped, or God forbid, had failed to be set the night before by the previous guard or a cleaning crew it was mayhem. Reports, phone calls and all kinds of awkward conversations would result – ones you didn’t want to have with either the security company hire ups or the cemetery bosses because they’d inevitably blame you even if it wasn’t.

Every alarm on every building had a different security code. You think you have trouble remembering people’s phone numbers? 17 buildings, 17 codes. You had to memorize them all and if you input a wrong number the system would lock down and a call to the alarm company was in order and a report would have to be filled out with a possible reprimand from security headquarters. I found clever ways of keeping track of the numbers including writing them all on my arm before the day started. It’s one of the reasons we wore long sleeved shirts as part of our uniforms – even in the 35C heat.

Following the opening of the gates and buildings you did a drive through of the entire grounds because the sun was now up and you could see what kind of movement there was on the grounds. Aside from the joggers and dog walkers and cyclists there were also kids walking through to school and stay-at-home moms pushing strollers. There were clubs of seniors doing power walks, site-seeing groups taking in the gothic history of the graves and the dozens of maintenance teams.

The full-time grounds keepers were grave diggers and maintenance staff whose sole job it was was to keep on top of funerals. They dug graves a day ahead and sometimes two days ahead if there was a large number of interments and funerals on any given day. The most I recall on a single day was 23 events. These guys were in at 6.30AM and out at 3PM. On the busy days they’d be there until 5PM.

The seasonal staff consisted of mostly students whose jobs were to cut the grass, plant flowers and bushes, clear dead branches and leaves and change the 75 oil-drum garbage cans scattered all over the cemetery. To everyone’s credit, there was rarely a piece of litter anywhere on site unless it blew there from an adjoining street. Ironically, you could get visitors to observe the litter ordinance, but you couldn’t keep them or their dogs from pissing or shitting on graves. I’m only half kidding about the people.

Because the cemetery was there long before the neighbourhoods surrounding it the site was one of the largest green spaces in the city. I’ve been told there are over 50,000 trees there including many species brought from Europe at the end of the 1800s and into the early 1900s from Europe which are now extinct in those territories. Arborists come from around the world to study the oldest of these. The cemetery has a three-man full-time staff nursing the entire collection. The occupy an old house on the property and have maps of every section denoting every tree on the site. Similarly, every tree has a serial number tacked to it in the form of a small I.D. plate. I would assume at some point in the future those plates will be exchanged for UPC codes and they’ll be able to launch an app to scan them each year during the annual inventory which currently takes about 4 months to complete by hand.

And there’s animals. A lot of animals. Squirrels, chipmunks, ground hogs, a hundred varieties of bird including red-tail hawks, mice, rats, bats, possum, skunk, deer, and even coy-wolves who would wander up from the valley below the ravine section of the cemetery. And the racoons. Massive, dog-sized racoons. By the end of my tenure there I had counted 33 families of racoon with a minimum of two adults and three kids in each pack. They became beacons for when I was patrolling in the dark and entertainment on slow nights while I was eating dinner. The cemetery was an artificial but highly functioning eco-system and the goal was to allow the dead to become part of that cycle of growth and renewal.

Send your CDs for review to this NEW address: Jaimie Vernon, 4003 Ellesmere Road, Toronto, ON M1C 1J3 CANADA


Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

dbawis-button7Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon 

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