By Belle Hann

    When you first think of grave diggers, it may conjure up ghoulish images of spooky looking men with shovels. “Grave digging still has that stigma around it of being a bit unusual” Daniel Walkeden, operations supervisor and grave digger at Altona Memorial Park. 

    But there’s nothing remotely ghoulish about Daniel. He’s a self-confessed outdoors person and qualified horticulturist who takes pride in helping families in a difficult moment.

    He’s been working at Altona Memorial Park for over ten years, having initially started working as a gardener. While he admits it can be perceived as a strange location, he loves being outdoors in the green space each day.

    “I just couldn’t see myself cooped up in the office.”

    But what is it like working amongst, you know, dead people? Daniel admits that certain moments can be quite emotionally challenging.

    “We are humans as well. You might see someone in the crowd that might remind you of your own family. And many of the grave diggers here have their own loved ones buried here too.”

    Weather is another occupational hazard, as grave diggers have to continue their labor intensive work regardless of extreme hot and cold.

    Daniel notes that the nature of the works means that he has formed a tight-knit group of friends amongst his fellow grave diggers. He also finds the cultural diversity of death practices to be fascinating, as he regularly encounters different traditions first hand.

    “When Maori people do the haka (ceremonial dance), it’s a pretty intense experience to witness. You can feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.”

    A typical day at Daniel’s job starts with preparing the day’s burials and setting up the site for the burial services. When the service has ended and the mourners departed, the grave diggers pack up and backfill the site, and then get started on the next day’s graves.

    Has he ever seen anything weird or spooky? Daniel laughs:

    “Not that I’ve encountered. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything strange.”

    Ultimately, Daniel says that his team works hard to serve both the living and the dead with dignity and respect.

    “We all keep in the back of our mind here that it is not just a ‘normal job.’ You are dealing with people’s loved ones who are having a hard-enough time as it is. You just got to the best you can.”

    “So What Do You Do?” is an ongoing series exploring unusual careers in the inner west of Melbourne. 

    Our content is a labour of love, crafted by dedicated volunteers who are passionate about the west. We encourage submissions from our community, particularly stories about your own experiences, family history, local issues, your suburb, community events, local history, human interest stories, food, the arts, and environmental matters. Below are articles created by community contributors. You can find their names in the bylines.

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