When families are at their most vulnerable, huddling together and recalling the memory of their recently deceased over a new grave, the caretakers of Arlington National Cemetery fade into the background. But behind the scenes, they provide one of the most important tasks: They bury the dead.
Jeffrey Lee spent three years as a caretaker at Arlington before being promoted to his current position as a cemetery representative. The job, he said, is emotionally and physically demanding.
“As a caretaker we covered pretty much everything from internments to inurnments, closing the gravesites, setting up gravesites, all preparation for funeral services. We replace headstones. We make sure graves are closed properly and covered up.”
Lee, who is a native of the Washington, D.C., area, started out as a caretaker contractor with a company for about five years, and when his contract job came to Arlington, he said he instantly fell in love with the place. After the company lost the contract, a new company picked it up and Lee moved to that company to stay with Arlington. A few months later he was working directly for Arlington.
“This is one of the few places that I could see a career coming out of it,” said Lee, 41.
Being a cemetery representative is less hands-on than his role as a caretaker. He no longer repairs graves; instead he makes direct contact with the family of the deceased. The day before a funeral, he calls the family to introduce himself, make a connection and to make it less awkward on the day of burial when they meet in the family room.
“Grief comes in all different types. Some people are angry. Some people laugh to hide the grief. Some people just take it harshly. It’s knowing people and knowing how to deal in those situations,” that are key to his job, Lee said.
From a caretaker’s perspective, you deal with families as well, but in a different way, he said. He said you see first-hand the families grieving over a headstone.
Lee never served in the military. “I think every service, every branch of service, makes me feel like I wish I could have served.
“This place is so rich in history,” he said.
But no funeral is ever easy.
“At the end of the day, you are still dealing with death,” he said. “Even when a family comes in and they are in a good mood, you know deep inside they are in pain.”