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Stroke doesnt stop 64-year-old woman from digging graves
Stroke victim Evelyn Prouty, 64, takes a break after digging out a grave Sunday at East Union Cemetery. - photo by HIME ROMERO
I was working up a slight sweat.

It was one shovel load of dirt after another.

Yet what I was doing was a walk in the park.

It is something that Evelyn Prouty has done 80 times as a volunteer during the past 2.5 years.

That “thing” is digging graves by hand.

There is much to admire about a lady who would give freely of her time to prevent a cemetery from figuratively going to hell. She’s been the linchpin along with sidekick Bill Good who has kept the weeds from taking over as well as keeping the grass alive and mowed.

But what makes it amazing - and perhaps a bit shameful for the community - is that Evelyn is 64 years old and has just recently suffered a mini-stroke. Yet she was out there in the cold and slight sprinkle on Sunday working side-by-side with Bill to make sure that a family could take comfort in being able to bury their loved one today at East Union cemetery.

Her doctor would probably have a massive coronary if he knew what she was doing.

Bill runs the backhoe. A fused back and related problems make it borderline impossible - and extremely painful - to man a shovel. Besides, as Evelyn noted, Bill knows how to operate the backhoe that allows the movement of the lion’s share of dirt in holes that need to go nine feet deep. Unless, that is they get lucky and are preparing for a burial in a plot that already has a massive concrete vault in place. Then the dig is only four feet.

She’s had help a few times. Among them were Victor Gully, Leon Sucht, and Rocky Wilson. Evelyn, though, is spring chicken compared to two of the three men who she says are in their 80s. Once in a while her son can make it out when a burial doesn’t interfere with his full-time job. There even was a strapping teen-age boy helping once.

But Prouty said he spent more time standing around watching her dig as the task had knocked the wind out of him.

Oftentimes she has to dig down 9 feet
It’s hard to fathom any able-bodied man letting a woman shovel to dig a grave let alone one that is 64 years old. I found myself picking up tempo and telling Evelyn “don’t worry, I can get it”. Still, she grabbed her own shovel - actually more of a spade - and had at it.

“It’s easy today,” she said. “Most of the time we go down nine feet. In the summer the ground is hard. The rain actually has made it easier.”

They received a quick lesson in grave digging by the superintendent they had to let go when the state seized the cemetery’s funds. Essentially both learned on the job.

First they have to pore over wildly undependable ledgers and such to try and determine the exact location of a grave. Then they have to go out and try to physically pinpoint the exact spot. It requires using a steel pole with a ratchet device designed to let the users “feel” that they’ve hit something which in this case is the concrete top of a vault. If the grave has a vault already in it then they establish the plot lines via repeated tests. If the site doesn’t have a vault in place they also need to make sure there really isn’t one down there. All it would take is the backhoe making a direct hit to crack a vault.

Once Evelyn cuts a perimeter using the space, Bill uses the back hoe to lift up the first layer of dirt that is thick with entangled grass roots and deposits it on plywood adjacent to the gravesite to keep things clean. That top layer then has to be placed by hand into the backhoe loader to be carried away and disposed. I tried to muscle it in and was struggling.

“Break it into smaller pieces with the shovel,” Bill said.

I made them somewhat smaller but they were still fairly large. Evelyn has to make them into even smaller segments so she can lift them. Arguably it is more back breaking than shoveling dirt from a four-foot deep hole. I may find out one day what it is like to shovel from a 9-foot hole if a need to dig a grave coincides with my time off from work. I’m sure that will top anything I dealt with Sunday.

Bill can get much of the dirt out with the bucket. Still there was a good 60-plus shovel loads - I stopped counting after awhile - to get out of the hole.

This particular grave also had a water line to contend with.

Friends group often loses money on burials
Today, Evelyn and Bill will show up early, place synthetic grass around the gravesite, cover the dirt and set out folding chairs for the funeral. They will then wait patiently until the last loved one has paid their respects.

They will use the backhoe to replace the vault lid with the coffin inside and then fill up the hole with dirt.

They were lucky on this one. The vault was already in place and paid for along with opening and closing costs. That means the association - whose bank accounts sometimes dip down to a couple hundred of dollars - didn’t lose money. A vault - if it had not been paid for years ago and in place - could cost the non-profit Friends of the East Union Cemetery some $300. The association was put in place to cover ongoing costs while the mess is sorted out. There are also state fees that must be paid when a person is buried.

Just how Evelyn became a grave digger in her Golden Years speaks volumes of her commitment to Manteca and its residents.

Evelyn was part of a group that stepped up when news got out the state was pulling the cemetery’s license shutting it down due to improprieties involving the East Union Cemetery Association.

She thought originally they involved simply mowing and weeding - a task that takes four days a week given the complexity of the job due to the extensive headstones and cement coping.

But then she found out it also required burying people. More specifically, it involved people who had already bought plots as without a license a cemetery can’t sell burial plots. There are 6,000 people buried at East Union cemetery with space for another 1,000.

Looking to the future she said there is much more capacity if the cemetery gears up for ashes.

Families and those who passed on keep her going
She could have said “not my problem” but then she thought of the families and those who have passed away expecting to be buried at East Union Cemetery.

“They would have had only two choices,” Evelyn said. “They could have put them on ice until the cemetery was up and running again but that would be real expensive or they could buy a burial plot somewhere else and hope one day to get their money back by selling the EU plots (when it becomes legal to do so.)”

Without a license they couldn’t access funds frozen by the state or sell plots to generate revenue. But they could still bury people.

That’s how a couple who could easily qualify for Social Security started doing a job that two able-bodied men were paid to do before previously.

As an association, the cemetery is owned by the families who have people buried there. It isn’t owned by a government agency nor is it privately owned.

How the cemetery got in such a mess was due to embezzlement. Evelyn notes that state authorities and Manteca Police were given all the information but elected not to try to push for prosecution for whatever reason.

Instead of focusing on that, however, Evelyn is devoting the energy she has left to dig graves after running the Manteca Historical Society museum and keeping the cemetery in presentable shape to try and get the cemetery back in legal standing with the state.

Bill is studying to take the cemetery manager’s examination so he can get licensed. Once that happens, the cemetery is back in business. They will be able to hire someone to do Evelyn’s grunt work using the business end of a shovel.

But until then come pouring rain or 100-degree heat Evelyn will be out there shoveling.

Evelyn said it would be great if they could develop a list of able-bodied men who they could call to help. The more on the list the better as she understands they may have work and other obligations.

Right now some volunteers are stepping up to help with maintenance including most recently members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They’ve been a tremendous help although they could use more assistance.

Arguably what is more pressing is giving Evelyn some break time from shovel duties.

If you can help, call Evelyn at 982-0339 or Bill on his cell at 390-2700.