Graveyard shift

BEREA — Initially, people think Sue Tompkins' side job is a bit odd.

Some folks call it morbid. Tompkins calls herself a grave groomer.

“They've never heard of anybody that's done that before,” she said. “Around here, I might be one of a kind.”

Tompkins, who started a small business with her family, tends to graves in Madison County and the surrounding area. If someone can't make it to a grave site for a special day, Tompkins shows up with an armful of flowers to place beside headstones.

On birthdays, she brings balloons. At the request of a family member, she's even lit fireworks because that person's favorite holiday was the Fourth of July.

When she finishes pruning the grass and cleaning the headstone, Tompkins adorns graves with “anything that touches people's hearts at that time,” including jewelry and love notes, she said. She brings extra flowers for the headstones that are bare.

Tompkins' passion for the dead stems from a promise to her father, Charles Warner.

“When I die, nobody will take care of my grave,” he told his daughter.

“Well, Daddy, you know that I'll always take care of it as long as I live and when I'm gone, hopefully one of the kids will take care of it,” she replied. “You don't never have to worry about your grave being taken care of.”

For 25 years, Tompkins has tended her daddy's grave site, which was moved from Irvine to Pilot Knob Cemetery in Madison County a few years back so he could be buried beside his son, John Warner, who died two years ago in a car accident. Tompkins also tends to her brother's grave site.

Tompkins, 55, was at Pilot Knob Cemetery one day when she struck up a conversation with an older woman there paying respects to a loved one. The woman hadn't been to the site in months, and said she wished there was someone who could take care of the grave for her.

Tompkins said the conversation got her thinking about everyone who might need someone to give attention to the graves of their loved ones — families who have moved out of state, individuals who are disabled and older folks in nursing homes.

So she started S & R's Grave Grooming with her two sons and granddaughter last November.

Tompkins stops by Pilot Knob Cemetery before and after shifts at Campbell's Drugstore in McKee, where she cuts up with customers between her duties as a pharmacy technician.

Tompkins cares for about 10 graves at the cemetery and a few others around the county.

She spends quiet mornings and evenings at Pilot Knob among plots that overlook a small pond, a watering hole for dragonflies, deer and geese. Tree-covered hills hug the cemetery grounds. Older headstones sprout from the grass near the entrance, some no bigger than a building block. The newer, larger headstones are closer to the water and shine in the evening sun.

“This is one of the most calmest places you've ever been to,” she said. “To me, it's relaxing to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and worry, and they're sure not going to argue back with you.”

Most people learn about Tompkins through word of mouth. She rarely gives out business cards, and has only advertised the business once. Tompkins said she doesn't make much money through her business, but she's rewarded because she's helping people.

The family doesn't want people to think they are trying to take advantage of those who have lost a loved one, said Tompkins' son Ronnie Rice. They just want to provide a service.

“A lot of people might want to take care of their grave sites, but they don't like to come,” Rice said. “So they'd rather have someone else deal with it.”

Tompkins agreed.

“It's too painful for some people,” she said.

The job “may be morbid,” Tompkins said, “but I think that's probably the last thing you can do for anybody is to show them how much you care.”