Gaines takes pride in caring for county’s largest cemetery

This Memorial Day, hundreds of people will visit Prairie Lawn Cemetery in Peabody to decorate the graves of loved ones, attend the Memorial Day service and view the lighted Avenue of Flags.

Few will give any thought to the finely manicured lawn between the graves, the careful trimming around the headstones and trees, or the expanse of evenly set stones across the cemetery.

And that’s exactly how Tony Gaines wants it.

He wants the details to be perfect so visitors can focus on the reason that brought them to this cemetery that is the final resting place for more than 8,500 people.

Gaines has been caretaker at Prairie Lawn for 14 years. It is his “retirement” after years of farming.

“When I got ready to sell out, Warren Slocombe (a neighbor) said, ‘You’re not going to want to sit around, and we’re needing someone to take care of the cemetery,'” he said.

Gaines agreed to sign on as caretaker, and he has come to love the quiet peacefulness of the cemetery.

“You can forget about everything out here,” he said.

Taking care of a cemetery the size of Prairie Lawn is a full-time job, plus some.

“This is the second largest cemetery within a four-county area around here,” Gaines said. “The only one larger is Greenwood over in Newton.”

Gaines cares for 380 evergreen trees and 60-some old pines.

“We probably have more trees out here than in the park,” he said.

Gaines has been told he does the work of several people, but he says it’s not him-it’s the good equipment. A bequest several years ago allowed the cemetery to upgrade equipment.

But even with the best equipment, Gaines still puts in long hours.

“I’m used to getting up early, so I get out to the cemetery about 6 a.m. and leave about 9 or 9:30 (p.m.),” he said. “I go for daylight.”

During the summer, Gaines keeps busy mowing and trimming and resetting stones that have become dislodged or uneven.

He pays attention to the details.

As he drives through the cemetery, he makes a mental note of clumps of grass or weeds growing in places the mower can’t reach.

When someone dies, he oversees preparation for the burial and is meticulous in digging and filling the grave so the ground settles evenly and doesn’t sink.

He has learned many tricks of the trade from others in the business.

“I like to visit,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve gotten to know all the undertakers real well and they’ve given me some good ideas.”

Visiting with people is one of the best aspects of the job, Gaines said.

Since Prairie Lawn is a historic cemetery-the oldest grave is dated 1862-it is a popular destination for people who are interested in old cemeteries and students learning about history.

“I have people here all the time, especially this time of year,” he said. “Every day I have genealogists here looking for some of their relatives.”

Gaines is always happy to help visitors locate graves.

The cemetery can be confusing because it is constantly changing, and landmarks people remember to help them locate a gravesite may no longer be there. A tree may have been removed since the person’s last visit, or a space that was empty before may now have a tombstone.

Gaines finds the best way to hunt tombstones is on a golf cart he brought to the cemetery after he quit golfing.

“People come along and want to look at lots or find somebody. I say, ‘We’ve got two ways to do it-I can either meet you there or we can get in my golf cart,'” he said. “Two or three people can ride with me if they sit close together.”

Gaines said the golf cart makes driving through the cemetery much easier.

“You can drive across the cemetery and get right up to where you want to go,” he said.

He even has some regular customers.

“There are two little old ladies out of Newton that come over here quite a bit,” he said. “One day they came out and they said, ‘Tony, would you mind taking us on that golf cart?’ Now I can expect them at least twice a year just to look around.

“I told them I’d try to drive safely so I wouldn’t kick one of them off.”

Gaines claims his cart was the fastest at the golf club.

His wife, Gwen, says he claims he doesn’t give passengers a wild ride, but she isn’t so sure.

“I bet they white-knuckle it all the way around,” she said with a laugh.

While Gaines is happy to chat with people and tell them stories, he is also sensitive to the emotional needs of visitors who are grieving, and he senses when someone prefers to be left alone.

“A lot of people, especially women, come to the cemetery if it’s their wedding date or a special occasion,” he said.

Sometimes he finds he is deeply affected by the grief of a family that has just lost a loved one.

Helping people through the death of a child is the hardest part of his job, Gaines said.

“My most difficult time was when I had two like that in two months’ time,” he said. “Mom and Dad had to come out because they hadn’t bought lots yet, and they had to buy a lot and bury their son.”

Gaines did the only thing he could do in that situation-make the child’s final resting place a special, well-cared for spot that the family can visit for years to come.

It is that tender loving care that makes visitors remark about Prairie Lawn’s great beauty and serenity.

For Memorial Day, he wants the cemetery to be in top condition.

“You want to have it looking good. And you sure want it to be trimmed,” he said.

His rule is that it must be mowed within three days of the holiday weekend.

“The closer you can mow to Memorial Day, the better it’s going to be,” he said.

Gaines plans to be out in the cemetery over the Memorial Day weekend and for as long as he can foresee in the future.

“Dr. (Stephen) Cranston told me ‘Tony, as long as you feel like it you better keep doing this, because if you quit, you’d be all messed up with arthritis,'” he said. “‘You want to keep up as long as you possibly can.'”

Visitors can expect to see Gaines tooling around on his golf cart for years to come.

Doctor’s orders.

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