Cemetery Sexton Frank Engle is a full-time employee at the Hillsdale Department of Public Ser­vices. Ben Wilson | Collegian

Frank Engle spends his days caring for Hillsdale res­i­dents located six feet in the ground. 

With the formal title of Cemetery Sexton, Engle is respon­sible for the city’s two final resting places. He is a full-time employee at the Hillsdale Department of Public Ser­vices and juggles both the normal labors of the job — such as filling pot­holes — and his sexton duties, like searching for graves, digging them, and over­seeing internment. 

“I work in the street department full time. One of my duties is all the jobs and tasks of the sexton,” Engle said. “Some weeks we don’t do any­thing and some weeks I’m up here every day.”

There are dozens of ceme­teries across the County, but the city gov­ernment oversees just two: Lakeview Cemetery and Oak Grove Cemetery. 

The 15- and 38-acre fields keep Engle busy. He aids fam­ilies in locating graves bought decades ago, digs graves, oversees the internment of bodies, and main­tains the properties.

Fam­ilies will fre­quently call him and seek help in finding graves of long-dead family members, according to Engle. 

“There’s a lot of genealogy and ancestry involved,” he said.

Records for the two ceme­teries are often spotty because the ceme­teries go back to the 1850s and the city took own­ership in the 1950s. Lakeview has a Rev­o­lu­tionary War veteran buried in its ground. 

“Some of the records are good and some aren’t. For the most part, we know which graves are used and which ones aren’t and who’s buried where,” he said. “But there are some gaps, and some of the records just didn’t get kept well.”

In his desk at the main­te­nance building in Hillsdale, Engle has thou­sands of cards, scribbled with names and loca­tions of graves. Though the infor­mation is mostly com­put­erized now, the decades-old cards can help with locating hard-to-find graves.

Oak Grove, right down the street from the College and a fre­quent des­ti­nation for dog walkers and runners, has more than 9,000 gravesites, with about 5,000 of them holding a body.

About 300 graves are still for sale, but most are sold and waiting to be filled. 

Some por­tions of the land are unusable, as past sextons con­fused which way was north. As a result, Engle has to inves­tigate where graves really are from time to time as his records can be wrong, and the layout of the older por­tions can be con­fusing. He uses a weighted probe, a heavy pole-like tool, to stick in the ground to hear if a vault is beneath. 

“It’s a lot of inves­ti­gating, you have to be Sherlock Holmes at times,” he said with a laugh. “Some­times you have to be a psychic to figure out what they were thinking.”

Orig­i­nally from Jonesville, Engle attended college in Col­orado and moved to Hillsdale to marry his wife in 2006. 

“I’ve been a land sur­veyor, so I’ve worked with maps. I do a lot of stuff with maps,” he said. “And I also was in the Sons of Union Vet­erans of the Civil War, helping with grave reg­is­tration, so I had some expe­rience with ceme­teries. As a matter of fact, I helped design a cemetery at one of the engi­neering places I worked at.”

Engle attends many burial cer­e­monies, both for caskets and cremations. 

“We usually do about 25 to 30 burials a year between both ceme­teries,” he said. “It’s not every week, but I work a lot of Saturdays.”

 Digging a grave is com­pli­cated. As the City of Hillsdale Director of Public Ser­vices Jake Hammel said, “it takes a whole lot of skill sets that come together.”

Engle has to nav­igate his equipment through the grounds, which can be dif­ficult in the busier areas. Then he uses the probe to ensure there are no sur­prises beneath, then begins the tedious process of staking out the hole. Using a backhoe, which is a large four-wheel digging vehicle like the ones at con­struction sites, Engle removes the dirt in the roughly four and a half foot deep hole. If it’s winter, the process is longer with the need to jack­hammer through ice and frozen ground.

The hole has to be slightly larger than the vault. A vault is a con­crete box that a casket is placed in. Engle said this practice of placing a casket in some­thing more sturdy became the standard in the 1970s.

Engle has seen the impor­tance of the vault as some­times a casket from decades ago will col­lapse and the ground above it will sink in.

“One time I was filling a grave in a tight area with the backhoe,” he said, “and I was getting ready to turn. A casket from the 1930s col­lapsed under­neath me and all of a sudden I was looking up at the sky.”

Engle spent the next few hours res­cuing his vehicle from the newly formed hole and filling the ground in. 

The job is not for the squeamish, he said. Some­times when digging, a portion of a nearby old casket can col­lapse or break, and “you’ll get a whiff of a smell you won’t really enjoy.”

“One time some guys were digging a grave, next to an old grave, and some of the dirt fell off as did the side of the coffin,” he said. “You could see who’s in there.”

The job takes heart, he said, because he attends so many burial ser­vices. Engle has seen his fair share of emo­tional sit­u­a­tions, from fights breaking out to people becoming so hys­terical they have to call an ambulance. 

“You have to care,” he said. “It’s part coun­seling because there will be some very emo­tional people. We try to maintain the final dis­po­sition in a loving, caring way.”

Engle’s super­visor Jake Hammel said the job is dif­ficult, both emo­tionally and phys­i­cally, but Engle is a “very ded­i­cated person” who does the job well. 

“You’re often dealing with a family that’s suf­fering when you’re doing the burial process,” Hammel said. “It requires a unique person, a ded­i­cated person, willing to work a few extra hours, to come in early, or work on Saturday.”

He noted the various skills needed for the job from emo­tional support to engi­neering and sur­veying abilities.

Despite the hard­ships, Engle sees himself serving as sexton for the rest of his career. 

“Lord willing my health stays good, I’ll probably be with the city for another 15 years,” Engle said. “I would like to keep doing this because I enjoy it. It’s never the same, that’s for sure.”