BY GABE LICHT
DELANO, MN Deacon Joe Kittok stands over a freshly filled grave.
Whether he knew the person buried there or not, the 69-year-old Delano man pays his final respects in the form of a prayer.
“I just ask God to have mercy on that person,” Kittok said. “I just say my own words to forgive them for what was not good, and I’m sure they had goodness in their heart throughout life and at the time of death.”
It’s the final step in the grave-digging process for Kittok.
He began the practice after a discussion with Father Michael Tegeder, of Our Lady of the Lake in Mound, though he doesn’t remember quite when it took place.
“He told me I didn’t just have a job, but that I was in a prime position in this stage in a person’s life from this life to the next life,” Kittok said. “ . . . When I get home, I pray for them, and all the people I’ve ever buried. Every chance I get, I pray for the people buried in our cemeteries in Delano or wherever they happen to be.”
He doesn’t have a list of everyone he has buried, but if he did, it would have thousands of names on it, as he buries up to 300 individuals each year at 30 cemeteries throughout the area.
“That’s one of my regrets in life,” Kittok said. “Forty-four years ago, someone should have said, ‘You should have a list of these folks.’”
That’s right: Kittok has been digging graves for 44 years.
It all began in 1972, right after Kittok was married.
“Gordy Peterson, a neighbor of ours, asked my brother and I to be the new diggers out there,” Kittok said of the first request to dig a grave at the Delano Public Cemetery.
When asked why he and his brother were asked to the task, he cracked a smile and said, “Because we were available.”
He still remembers digging that first grave.
It was for Emily Brown, who had owned a drug store in downtown Delano with her husband. He can still find exactly where she was buried to this day.
With that first grave came a learning curve.
“I was naïve,” Kittok said. “I forgot to ask how big it needed to be. I just guessed. I dug it extra big just to be sure.”
His grave dimensions are much more accurate now. Each grave is 8 feet long and about 37 inches wide, which is convenient for Kittok because that’s the width of the bucket on his excavator.
Are people really buried 6 feet under? Kittok says no, and gives credit to author Zane Grey for the measurement, as he wrote that enemies just needed to be covered up when they were buried, while friends should be buried 6 feet under.
Achieving the optimum depth is not as much of a challenge as it used to be, thanks to Kittok’s excavator, which saves him from doing it the old-fashioned way.
“I had a Ford Pinto and brought three pieces of plywood and a wheelbarrow,” Kittok said. “I’d strap all of it to the top of the Pinto, haul it out there, and set it up and work from there.”
It took about three hours to dig a grave by hand, but Kittok didn’t seem to mind.
“I seemed to like it right from the beginning,” Kittok said.
From 1972 to 1986, he dug graves in addition to working full-time at a plastics factory.
“There were times it was busy, and I never missed a day of work,” Kittok said. “I’d work early mornings and late nights in the cemetery. I had a couple Coleman lanterns to light up the terrain.”
Even after taking on the job full-time, he didn’t upgrade his equipment until his fill-in staff requested it.
“Eventually, I think it was 1989, I went on a religious retreat and lined up my wife, sons, and brother to go out there,” Kittok said. “They had to dig a grave when I was gone. I got back, and they told me they wouldn’t be my replacements anymore unless I’d buy a backhoe.”
With new equipment, Kittok cut his grave-digging time in half.
Kittok wore out that backhoe and moved on to using an excavator. Not wanting to worry about being unable to complete a job if it breaks down, Kittok has a backup excavator, truck, and trailers.
He utilizes a jackhammer for digging graves in the winter.
“It’s not as dangerous, and I think it’s healthier for me,” Kittok said. “It’s a good work out. It weighs 75 pounds going down, but 175 pounds coming up.”
It’s still easier and safer than how he used to soften the frozen ground.
“In winter, I would melt some of the frost with wood, or charcoal, or corn cobs,” Kittok said. “I had a metal box that I would fill up and ignite, and come back the next morning, and hopefully it would be thawed out. Then, I’d use a pick and different bars. There was always a moment of elation when I’d break through because that was the beginning of the end.”
Dealing with winter is just one way that nature can make the job interesting. For example, Kittok remembers cleaning up after a storm that wreaked havoc.
“I do remember up at St. Peter’s Calvary Cemetery there was a huge storm that took down massive, 3-foot trees, and uprooted several burials under those trees,” Kittok said. “Somebody from our parish came out and told me there was something gruesome in the cemetery. I hurried out there with my backhoe and dug right in. Oh, that’s a bad pun. I reburied those who had been disrupted by those roots.”
Kittok takes pride in each grave he digs, even after it is filled.
“It takes a long time for dirt to settle and finally be nice and flat. Sometimes, we plant grass five or six times before it takes,” Kittok said. “This year, with all the heavy rain, the grass seed just washes off. What can we do but keep trying? I try to put it back the way it was. They pile up in the winter. In the spring, you have a big batch to do. When I’m in the area, I stop by and take a look and make a note if I need black dirt or if I need seed.”
Kittok works hand-in-hand with the cemeteries, some times placing granite markers, selling graves, and helping with general upkeep.
He said he has met many good people throughout his grave-digging career, though he has not gotten to know many other gravediggers very well.
Bud Gleason, of Corcoran, was the exception.
“I was so happy I met another gravedigger,” Kittok said. “We were cordial. I didn’t realize he was checking me out to take his place. He was dying. Two years ago, he turned everything over to me. He said, ‘I think you know it well enough.’ It wasn’t three weeks, and he passed away.”
Fittingly, Kittok dug Gleason’s grave.
“It was comforting that he put his faith in me,” Kittok said.
He also dug a grave for his father, mother, and most of his uncles.
“My ultimate goal would be to dig my own grave,” Kittok said. “I’ll be all done and feel the heart going, just grab the bumper of the truck, and they’ll find me right there.”
With that attitude, it should come as no surprise that Kittok has no plans to retire soon.
“I don’t need to retire right now,” Kittok said.
He’d rather continue serving others in this unique way.
“I treat the job with reverence,” Kittok said. “It’s a big part of people’s lives. The survivors are my customers. I always try to treat them gently an with reverence.”