A couple months ago, I introduced you to Winnipeg death metal outfit Psychotic Gardening here. In the search for additional and interesting content for this here spot on this here blog, I was altered to the fact that vocalist Chris "Gillishammer" Gillis' dayjob was as a gravedigger! As soon as I heard that, I immediately did the most logical thing and rustled up a bunch of email questions to discuss his life and work in one of the most metal - stereotypically speaking, of course - gigs a metalhead can have.
So, how did you end up in the gravedigging line of work? What sort of training and/or qualifications does one require to do what you do? Well, it’s something that just fell onto my lap actually. I saw an ad in the paper that the city of Winnipeg was looking for a cemetery groundskeeper and right away I thought, "this job is for me!" At the time I was hired, I didn’t have much by way of qualifications, but after being there for ten years, I’ve gone from grounds keeping to installing tombstones, digging graves, heavy machinery operations and now a foreman. It’s actually kind of ironic being a gravedigger - in my previous job I was a killer! I worked in a slaughterhouse for 14 years, where I was the “bleeder”- y’know, the one who shackles up hogs and bleeds them out; 2000 a day for 14 years….you do the math! People thought that was the perfect job title for me; little did they know I went from a killer to a gravedigger.
For whom and where do you work? What’s an average work day like for you? I’m employed by the city of Winnipeg, and we run three different cemeteries in the city. Depending on whether I’m foreman or digging, my day can vary. We can have 10-12 funeral services in a day, so I keep very busy. Death is a good business.
Isn’t your job is beholden to not only the rate of people dying at any one particular span of time, but also whether or not those people are buried at the cemetery you work at? Are there spells of time where you’re sitting around doing nothing for days and vice versa? I’m based out of one cemetery, which is the fourth largest in all of Canada and the largest in Manitoba. It’s over 300 acres, with approximately 200,000 burials to date. This particular cemetery is over 150 years old, with a lot of history and a lot of military burials from both world wars, around 20,000 [war burials] I think. There are months that are a bit slower than others, but with a cemetery of that size, there’s always work to do. There are actually about 30 workers in the summer months and only 10 in the long, cold winters. Our winters are pretty brutal. Last year, we had a good four feet of snow cover where you couldn’t even see the tombstones and the temperatures often dropped to -40 degrees Celsius.
Tell us about the digging process. How long does it take? Are there specific and standard dimensions you dig at? Is the whole ‘six feet under’ thing accurate? What are the tools of your trade? Digging full casket burials is now done with a backhoe and dump truck. Generally speaking, it doesn’t take that long, as long as “complications” don’t arise. In the summer months, it takes 20-40 minutes and a standard “plot” is 10’x4’ and only five feet deep. Here in Manitoba, there are safety regulations that require a special permit to dig deeper than that. The only exception is when a family buys a “double depth plot,” meaning we bury one on top of the other. In that case, we dig approximately nine feet deep. You ever jump into a hole that’s 9 feet deep? That would scare the shit outta anyone [laughs], especially when you know that not two feet over on each side there are corpses. In the winter months, the frost usually reaches 4-6 feet deep. In that case, it's like digging through fuckin’ cement. That can take a good four hours easily. Most of the time in the fall, we will dig at least 50 graves all in a row and use them in winter months. Now that’s a site to see! Right out of a horror movie: 50 open graves in one row, waiting to be “filled.” A usual cremation burial is dug out by hand and is only 2’x2’x2’.
What are the unsung hazards of your job? What about the stereotypes, Halloween pranksters, grave robbers, tombstone defacers, metal bands bugging to do location shoots, solitude, etc. you have to deal with? Hazards, there’s a few for sure. Cave-ins are the worst. The types of earth are very different and vary foot to foot. Unstable ground is always a factor when digging. Here in Winnipeg, we have a very high ground water table, and there are times you could be digging four feet down, the next thing you know there’s a bloody underground stream racing through the grave. Nothing like seeing the “neighbour” [laughs]. On occasion, we've had vandals hit our cemetery. Coming to work in the morning to see 200 stones knocked over sucks. And it makes for a lot of unnecessary work. But hey, fuck with the dead, and they just might follow you home...no lie. It’s funny though, I have more people asking if they could have their weddings at the cemetery than metal bands wanting to take pics. But really, most metal dudes would be hopping the gates at night for that. When I’m not racing around making sure graves are dug and funerals are brought in, it’s nice to look around and be around sooo many “people” and yet be alone. Silence and calmness at its best, it’s very peaceful. You’d be surprised how many film location directors come in to shoot scenes at my cemetery. Like I said, it’s huge, old and historic. Makes for great shoot locations.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen on the job? I’ve seen a few crazy things...disturbing to most people, I’d imagine. Some things I can’t legally speak of. About two months ago, I saw a small group of people gathered in an old area of the cemetery. It seemed odd, so I approached them. It turns out they were in a rush, packing up some equipment, paranormal [detecting] equipment. Apparently they found what they were looking for [laughs]! Something or “someone” scared the shit out of them and I haven’t seen them back since. I’ll admit, there have been times where I’ve looked over my shoulder, or felt a tap on the back. It’s funny how eyes can also play tricks on you. “Did I just see that?” has gone through my head on more than one occasion. I guess the most disturbing thing, or exciting, depends on the person, is when I get an order for a disinterment. Seeing a corpse...that’s something you can’t “un-see.” As I said, I’ve worked in a slaughterhouse and that smells like roses compared to a decomposing body. Nothing like jumping in a hole with a body that’s been buried for 20-plus years and having to handle it face-to-face. It’s times like that, I’ve wondered who or what has followed me home [laughs]. When things at home happen or get misplaced, all starting the day after a disinterment - to this day, I think I may have a couple of new “old friends” from the cemetery. Let’s just say, it’s never dull at work.
Admittedly, being a gravedigger is a pretty “metal” job. Do your work colleagues know about your being in a death metal band? From what other walks of life do you your colleagues hail from? Everyone I work with definitely knows I’m in a metal band. There’s no doubt when I’m showing up in the morning wearing Venom, Celtic Frost, Bathory and Psychotic Gardening shirts with hooves, horns and inverted crosses. It’s funny when you see the look on faces of people who are there for a funeral, and they recognize you from being on a stage the night before at one of our shows or from a news clipping in the paper. I once had a woman in her 70s say she saw me in the paper looking all scary and mad at the world! There probably isn’t a more metal job out there: surrounded by death, disease, murder, suicides, misfortunate, accidents, and victims of war; it's inspiration at its finest, I’d say. Add a little evil and morbidity and you now have the Psychotic Gardening recipe. We in PG are not just your same ol’ same ol' death metal band. Diversity is a mainstay for us, whether it’s slow gloomy and morose doom tracks, or a ripping, blasting track, we feel we can do it all and not follow the herds that tend to flock together sounding like the next popular fad. Why pigeonhole oneself? We write what we’re feeling and like to let our emotions take over.
Admittedly, when I found out you were a gravedigger, my reaction was one of exuberant excitement. This was mostly because I figured it was going to make for an awesome interview, but also because, dude, you’re a gravedigger! What sort of reactions do you get when you tell people what you do? Yeah man, gravedigger is definitely a sweet title for a metal dude. When people ask what I do for work, there are many different reactions. Some people get creeped out or scared; others think it’s the coolest job out there. Being in death metal bands for 24 years now, there isn’t a reaction to what I do, on or off stage, that I haven’t seen. And honestly, metal is a lifestyle in which I chose to live, so I can’t see myself changing careers or hanging up the mic as a metal singer till I’m buried in a hole myself.
And if you're in, or are going to be in, Ontario or Quebec next month, check 'em out live: Aug 13 - Thunder Bay, ON - TBA Aug 14 - Sudbury, ON @ Zigs Aug 15 - London, ON @ The Richmond Tavern Aug 16 - Toronto, ON @ The Comfort Zone Aug 17 - Hamilton, ON @ Doors Pub Aug 18 - Toronto, ON @ 751 (CD Listening Party Metal Monday w/ Alexander Wurm Erhardt) Aug 19 - Oshawa, ON @ The Atria Aug 20 - Guelph, ON - TBA Aug 21 - Belleville, ON - TBA Aug 22 - Quebec City, QC @ Salle Unission Aug 23 - Montreal, QC @ Crobar Aug 24 - Ottawa, ON - TBA