7-foot-tall gravedigger Frank Thomas dug 8,000 graves, most by hand, has some stories to tell
LIBERTY, TENN. -- Few people have lowered more dead bodies down into the good Tennessee earth than gentle giant Frank Thomas.
Throughout his 45-year career, this 7-foot-tall Liberty native paid passionate attention to the details of carving out a perfect rectangle in the ground, a hole that would be the final resting place for a loved one.
"Anybody can dig a hole in the ground, but not anybody can dig a grave. It's a sacred place. I would say I've dug 8,000 graves. The first 35 years all by hand, most of the time me only," said Thomas, 77, who hung up his pick and shovel 12 years ago.
"I dug graves for all the funeral homes in DeKalb and Wilson County over the years. Sometimes I dug four a day, and they never did have to wait on me, but it was hard. I've dug a many a grave with a pick and shovel and didn't ever stop to get a drink of water, had my back bent until I finished, and then I'd go dig another."
The gravedigger labored in hundreds of cemeteries across 37 Middle Tennessee counties.
"Cannon, Smith, Rutherford, Davidson, Williamson, White, Putnam, Bedford. I could just keep on naming them," he said, ticking off a partial list.
Among a handful of the businesses that requested his talents were Partlow, Ligon & Bobo and Nave funeral homes in Wilson County, Bass and Sanderson in Smith County, and Woodbury and Smith in Cannon County.
Wept over graves
Thomas tells on himself, saying, "You might think these fellows done this every day, your heart would harden, but my heart never hardened. I've cried at many a funeral and didn't even know the people. I always treated people, regardless of who they was, how poor they was, as nice and kind as I could be and showed 'em the respect they deserved.
"I been quit 12 years. When I first started, undertakers couldn't get nobody to dig graves. Nobody wanted to. They begged people to do it. When I began I didn't know nobody who dug graves as a profession. People looked down on me and acted like I was a low-class clown or trash, as if I couldn't find a living. But I saw I could make a good living at it. Now I know undertakers that has quit being undertakers to start digging graves."
The gravedigger can spin tales of his calling for hours on end. He possesses a phenomenal memory, and if you gave him the name of one of the departed he laid to rest, he likely could tell you the cemetery where he or she reposes in the sleep of the ages.
Thomas has a few mementoes. "I've got dirt out of the first grave I ever dug in one bottle, and in another bottle is the dirt from the last grave. The first one was in Liberty and the last at Shop Springs in Bryan Cemetery," he recollected.
Thomas's final job was on Oct. 11, 2004, his 65th birthday.
"I sat there after everybody left and cried like a baby because I knew it was my last one. I enjoyed it. I didn't enjoy everybody dying. I won't get out of that myself," he said.
Started as teenager
Thomas began assisting a neighbor in digging graves for Evans Funeral Home in Liberty in the early 1950s. He was 13, and the chore allowed him to skip classes in high school. By the early 1960s, he had teamed with his father, Noble Thomas. At that time, the task paid a meager fee.
"Me and Daddy, we got $25 a grave, 12½ for him, 12½ for me. Mr. Jewell Nave [who operated funeral homes in Lebanon and Watertown] volunteered and gave me $35. Every year or two, I'd go up a little bit. Later on I had to furnish the lowering device, the tent, chairs and artificial turf. When I quit, I was getting $500. Now most are getting $800 or $900," he said.
"All that 45 years, I don't reckon but one grave I didn't have ready out of 8,000. It was solid rock, top to bottom. I take my work very, very seriously."
Thomas gave himself half a day to dig a grave if he didn't have a heavy load. If he were digging in soft soil clear of rock, he could cut it out in two hours or less. He was on call from funeral home directors 24/7.
"Never had a vacation in my life. I can't think of but one or two Christmas days I spent with my wife and family," he said of digging across six decades.
He and his wife, Betty, have been married 54 years. He met her on the Woodbury town square, as she hails from the Cannon County community of Ivy Bluff. Betty is a quilter and stands 5-feet-tall to Frank's 7-feet. The couple raised a son and daughter and have four grandchildren.
They own a home in Liberty and a small farm in the DeKalb County countryside a few miles from where the Wilson, Cannon and DeKalb boundary lines meet.
Thomas also owns three acres of hallow ground on the back side of Salem Cemetery in Liberty where he sells burial plots. When his time comes, this is where he plans to be laid to rest.
Partner with his father
Born the son of a sharecropper, Thomas grew up with three brothers and graduated from Liberty High School in 1958. The sole survivor of his siblings, he dug two of their graves.
He says his father gave up farming to become a gravedigger.
"Daddy couldn't drive a vehicle. There were two other guys. One of them couldn't drive. The third guy had a pickup truck. They would dig graves for Walker Funeral Home in Smithville. That's where we all started," said Thomas.
"Then they started digging for two little funeral homes in Alexandria: Avant and Anderson. The old fellow who had the truck quit. After that the other guy quit, too. So that left Daddy without a job.
"Daddy said, 'I reckon I'll quit too.' I was working then as a bricklayer's helper. I said, 'No, Daddy, don't quit. I'll help.'"
A second funeral home in Smithville, Love-Cantrell, came calling, which allowed Frank and his father to work side by side in graveyards for six or seven years before the elder Thomas retired.
"I started it as my regular job in making a living in 1965. My son, Donald, started helping me when he was 8 years old and helped me in the summertime until he finished high school," said Thomas.
The myth of 6 feet under
Getting down to basics, he reported, "You've always heard a grave is 6 feet deep. That's not true. They're only 4½-feet deep, and 3-feet wide and 8-feet long. That is the standard around these parts. I always carried a 3-foot yardstick to make sure the grave is 3 feet wide, and I carried a 4-foot stick, flipped it twice to make sure it was long enough. I always wanted to be sure that the vault didn't hang [on its way down].
"Now there are gravediggers that don't never get in the grave," said the man who carefully inspected the bottom of every grave he made.
"Back when I dug a grave by hand, you got to haul out about half the dirt. It would take 20 wheelbarrows full. Around the graveyard were peoples' graves that was sunk down, so I'd take that extra dirt and put it on those graves and take my rake and smooth it down. They don't do that now. They take a backhoe and take the dirt off behind the cemetery and dump it.
"I enjoyed it. The reason I enjoyed it so much is that most people, 95 percent of the families, were nice. Everyone treated me nice even though I was a nobody. After I got done, I'd go sit down on the back of the property and get out of the way till it comes my time to do things. There was a lot of times the family would go over and thank me for how I did it, not leaving a mess. Make me feel good. But it's not that way now."
With his business firmly planted in DeKalb County, he then began getting calls from Wilson County funeral homes.
"I was digging a grave one day in Alexandria at New Hope Cemetery. Mike Hunter [of Hunter Funeral Home in Watertown] drove up in front of the church, and he said, 'Can you dig a grave for us tomorrow?' I said, 'Why, yes, I reckon I can.'
"That body was coming out of Nashville, going to Jones Hill [cemetery]. I dug that one and next day had another to dig. Mr. Nave [Hunter's father-in-law, who owned Nave Funeral Home in Lebanon] called. I guess he buried 80 percent of the people in Wilson County.
"He had two men who dug graves. He said, 'If I call them, half the time they won't answer the phone.' He asked me, 'Will you dig my graves?' I said, 'It looks like I got a pretty heavy load, but yes, I will.'"
After preparing graves for Nave a couple of years, Ligon & Bobo Funeral called upon Thomas to do the same for them. And a few years later, Jackie Partlow, owner of Partlow Funeral Home, also requested his services.
"I remember one night, way after dark, Mr. Nave called and said, 'Frank, I've got one to bury in Greenvale.' I had another grave to dig the next day over in Jackson County.
"About midnight I got out of bed and told my wife, 'I'm going to dig that grave.' I carried a coal oil lamp and got up there with that lamp and went over that graveyard hunting that tombstone, and I lit into it. When undertakers set the time for a funeral, they're not gonna change it. I had as high as a five graves a day. I really had to move dirt to get 'em dug.
"Seventy-five percent of the time I was digging, they would bury 'em that day. I'd get up by daylight, drive my car to the cemetery and look for the tombstone with a cigarette lighter."
Neither snow nor rain nor heat
Just like a farmer, the gravedigger found that his work in terra firma could turn into torment caused due to extreme weather and rocky ground.
"It didn't matter how hot or how cold it was. I even dug one in a tornado. It come a tornado, blowed my tent plumb down. So much water turned into the grave, we had to wait two or three hours to bury the body," he said.
"One year we had an inch of ice and six inches of snow on the ground, and me and my boy was asked to bury a lady on Jones Hill. It was coldest day on record for that day, 18 degrees below zero. The grave was at the back end, and me and my boy put all our stuff in a little red wagon and pulled it up that hill like a mule. While we were in the grave, icicles formed on our caps. Later that afternoon, they salted the road for the folks coming to the funeral."
So what did the gravedigger do when his shovel struck limestone?
"We'd take a sledgehammer and bust our brains out," answered Thomas. "If we couldn't get it, we'd call back to the funeral home and have them call a contactor to drill or dynamite it.
"People out of McMinnville came out with a grave-digging machine in the mid-1970s. Awfullest-looking thing you ever seen but dug prettiest graves you ever seen. So I go to buy me one, a little ole Terrmite backhoe that had a 14-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine, and I hated that thing. I'd take it to the graveyard a many a time and leave it on the driveway and dig the grave by hand. So I sold that thing."
Thomas's tools of the trade were his trusty shovel and pick. He also carried an ax to cut out tree roots, a claw hammer to nail down the top of wood coffins and a hand broom to sweep the bottom of the grave clean.
"I guess I went through 20 to 25 shovels. You wouldn't think a man would wear out a pick. Some of them I wore out to the nub," he said.
Ghost in the cemetery?
While not a man who believes in haunts, he confessed that he was spooked so badly one night that he fled a graveyard.
"The scariest thing, I'm digging one at Horton Springs in Smith County, one of the times had to get it done that day. I was digging by hand at night in the bottom by truck light. Them lights was shining on tombstones. All of a sudden I heard a woman hollering. I raised up and looked around the graveyard. I didn't see a soul.
"She hollered again. I loaded my stuff and shovel in the back and got in my truck and went home. I came back next morning to finish it. I never saw nobody," he said with a laugh.
A bit more than halfway through his 50-plus-year career, gravedigger Frank Thomas hired two young men, Michael Hunter and Kenneth Vickers, to help him on occasion.
He has never forgotten the time they scoffed after he told them about hand digging a grave in an hour and 45 minutes. Months later, the two went to the same Mt. Juliet cemetery to dig a grave, and a man, who lived nearby, strolled over to tell them about the tall man he observed digging a grave in an hour and 15 minutes.
Thomas said, "Michael helped me all through high school. After college, he came back home and wanted to know if he could work with me. He was with me over 20 years off and on. One of the best hands I ever had, he and my boy."
Hunter and Vickers later worked as a gravedigging team for four or five years. Hunter started his own Hunter Grave Service (HGS) 10 years ago, and he now prepares about 200 graves a year.
Protégé shares observations
Hunter, 50, began helping Thomas when he was 18. At the time the veteran had been digging graves for his grandfather, Mr. Jewell Nave, and father, Mike Hunter, for more than 15 years.
Said Hunter, "Frank got everybody for my granddaddy from the 1960s until my granddaddy died in 1997, unless they [the bodies] went to Wilson County Memorial Garden or Cedar Grove. And the last 20 or so years he worked, Frank dug in Cedar Grove.
"Frank was probably one of the first ones that come in professionally, whether he meant to or not, and turned it into a business. I remember Frank telling me the first time he was handpicking a grave up at New Hope Cemetery, my daddy drove up and got out his car and said, 'I've got a grave at Jones Hill. You want to dig it for me?' He never said no to anybody.
"From that time on he dug every grave for my daddy. About a week after that, my granddaddy called up at Liberty and said, 'This is Jewell Nave. You opened a grave for Mike up at Watertown, and I wondered if you would come up to Lebanon and dig a grave for me?' And from that point on, my granddaddy used him every grave after that."
'Last of a dying breed'
"When I went to work with him in 1984, he was practically digging everything in Wilson County and DeKalb, and since Frank retired, there's probably six, maybe eight sets of gravediggers that do what he used to do by himself. That is how gravedigging kind of evolved. It ain't that long since the communities went out and dug the graves," said Hunter.
"He's the last of a dying breed. I don't think nobody's gonna dig that many graves by hand again. He was the transition between the families or communities that came out and dug a grave and to when it turned into a business. He was the one around here. Won't never be anybody else like him.
"I remember back in the '80s, when I first started helping Frank. We would go to most of these country cemeteries in Wilson County. One of them I think of right off hand is Conatser Cemetery off Berea Church Road off Coles Ferry Pike. We would go the day before to dig and go back the next day and do the funeral service.
"There would always be five or six old men show up, and they would watch us work. They would start telling the stories of how they used to hand dig the graves. Some of them would tell WWII stories and all that kind of stuff. They have slowly all passed away, and when we go to these cemeteries today, nobody shows up like that.
"From my perspective, those guys took an active part in digging graves during their lives, and Frank was the first to take it on to the business route. There's people that work at cemeteries, and there's gravediggers. There's a big difference between them. There's not many true gravediggers. There's more now than when Frank did it solo, but still, as a profession, there are not that many gravediggers.
Keeping traditions alive
"A gravedigger deals mainly in these country church cemeteries, community cemeteries and family cemeteries. That's where we primarily make our living. They don't have cemetery workers there to do the work," said Hunter.
"You've got your corporate cemeteries, like Wilson County Memorial Garden. They hire people to work at the cemetery. In Nashville most of your cemeteries are corporate. You go to Memorial Garden, they're gonna back a tractor down a row of graves and have a hydraulic dump trailer behind it, and they're gonna dump that grave full of dirt instead of hand filling in.
"You would almost have to see it to truly know what I am talking about. There's a difference between what we do, but it is the same job.
"Frank would always quit digging out of the grave a little bit early and finish the rest of the grave with a pick and a trim bar. We would shovel it out, and the bottom would be perfectly flat, even to the corners, and today most don't even get into the grave.
"I make my graves 100 percent to specifications because I learned trimming graves from Frank. I've kept the 4-foot and 3-foot yardsticks when the majority of gravediggers use a tape measure now," said Hunter, who does the brunt of the digging with a mini-excavator and busts up rock with a 500-pound jackhammer.
"Frank was one of first that cut the sod up and hand rolled it. Most people think we use a machine to take it up. It's a little more work but a lot of people really like that. Most people have gone to hydraulic dump cart or a ratchet cart. To me it's just as easy to calculate your dirt, put it on a cart and shovel it in. Families still like that, what I call the traditional way.
"I never remember Frank ever making a mistake in the cemetery, and I've tried to apply that to this day, and I've never had a problem. He loved helping the people in their time of need and people remember that. You just don't see that personal touch any more, and Frank brought that. I try to keep that part of it alive and well."
On the lighter side, Hunter hints at Thomas's sense of humor and his stamina, saying, "One time he paid me off in Susan B. Anthony dollars, and he was always threatening that he was going to pay me with pennies.
"Frank is pretty stout. He wouldn't stop. It wouldn't be fast work but a steady pace all day.
He never did beat me in arm wrestling but will tell you that I never beat him.
"I considered him one of my best friends, and I learned a lot from him. I tell him when I go to the cemetery, he's with me. He knows every grave that he has dug," said the student about his master.
Politician with a slogan
The gravedigger was not all work and no play. He enjoyed a long stretch as a local politician, as he four times was elected a DeKalb County Commissioner. He said, "I ran against a banker and a preacher, and the gravedigger won."
A souvenir from his politicking days survives in his packed garage. It reads:
Elect Frank Thomas
The Last One To Let You Down
During his leisure time, Thomas attends to nine horses on his farm. He owns two new and three used buggies and enjoys hitching up a horse to his favorite buggy and going out for a spin.
"One of the things I love the best of all is going to Watertown for a haircut at Barrett's on the square. On purpose I turned one buggy into being the junkiest-looking thing for the fun of it. I like the attention. People will stop their cars and try to give me money," he said with a grin.
He also got a kick out digging a grave for a Ray Stevens music video and portraying a bum for a scene in the 2008 feature film, "Billy: The Early Years," about evangelist Billy Graham," which was shot at the Wilson County Fairground.
Portrait in wood
Since retirement, he has turned an artistic hand toward making walking sticks. He has turned a few of the 150 or more he has crafted into memorials in honor of people who have died in the community and given them to their families as keepsakes.
During conversation in his farmhouse, Thomas pulls out a hunk of wood and flips it over to show a painted carving of a tall man holding a shovel and standing on a pile of dirt.
He said, "There's the gravedigger himself. That's me."
Thomas explained that a close friend, the late Jimmy Smith of Liberty, carved and painted the piece for him in 2004. Smith died not long afterward. At his funeral, after the preacher finishing speaking, Thomas stood before the mourners and spoke a few words about his friendship with Smith and showed the crowd his carving. That was the only time in 8,000 funerals that Thomas spoke his piece.
Poetry on a tombstone
In the early 1990s, Thomas started a side business of peddling tombstones. Samples sit in plain view in his front yard off Highway 70.
After selling one grave marker, he recalled, the customer said he wanted some sort of verse cut on the stone.
"He asked me, 'What should I put?' I said, 'What about putting three words on there? 'Love never dies.' That about tickled them to death. All but one [customer] have done that," said Thomas, mighty pleased of his slogan.
"There was a time during the last few years I dug when I had two broken legs. I had to go to the graveyard in a walker straight from the hospital to show the boys where to dig. I had a stroke, had cancer. It was rough. Most people was nice that I dealt with. I never contraried nobody," he said.
Asked if he knew who would dig his grave, the thoughtful gravedigger responded, "I have thought about digging it myself and digging it by hand. I'd have to keep it covered. If anything happens and I don't dig it, Michael will be the one that digs it."
Presence still requested
"I enjoyed my work, made a good living, raised a family, built a new house, bought this little ole farm. I reckon I'm the first person in these parts of the country to make a living as a gravedigger."
Even now, 12 years since he ceased digging, folks request his presence at funerals, from beginning to the very end.
"People call me now to see their graves dug and some want me to let the casket down, and some want me to throw the first dirt in. Then they tell me, 'When we die, if you're still living, we want you to do the same for us.'"
Taking pride in his lengthy, mostly solitary career, Thomas has these words emblazoned on the back window of his white, 2002 Chevy pickup: Retired Gravedigger. I Dug Graves For 45 Years But Never Did I Bury One Soul."
Interpreting the meaning, he says, "I tell people, 'I buried the body. The Good Lord takes care of the soul.'"
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.