Gary Gleeson works in heaven, according to a young relative. He's actually Whanganui's cemetery manager, a job he holds under contract and from which he is retiring.
"I've been here 31 years and I've been in the hot seat [manager's position] for 17. I'm pretty happy with the way things have gone ... I think we've lifted it."
Gary and his wife live close by, so he feels they've taken ownership of the place, the job and all it entails.
He returned from Australia as a single dad with three young children and he needed a job. There was one going at the cemetery and he applied for it. In those days it was council-run with Richard Grieve employed as sexton/manager.
"I got the job and I was only here for about a year and all of a sudden they were going contract. Richard Grieve got the contract and not far down the track he said, do you want to stick around and take over when I retire?"
And that's what happened.
Gary's office is attached to the side of the crematorium at Aramoho Cemetery. Behind the office is a collection of books ancient and modern in which are recorded burials and cremations — handwritten — and there is an old-school set of index cards giving instant access to a lot of information, as well as a plot register. Beyond that is the Matthews natural gas cremator, installed in 2018. Attached is the chapel.
The first burial at Aramoho was January 26, 1915. The first cremation was May 31, 1946.
Although the council website refers to him as a sexton, the definition really applies to the person who looks after a churchyard and occasionally rings the bell. Aramoho Cemetery is somewhat larger than most churchyards, so cemetery manager is more appropriate.
"I make sure everything is maintained as it is; I organise burials and make sure everything works as it should...; I liaise closely with funeral directors. It works the same with cremations — make sure we do what we have to do with dignity; treat people as you would want yourself to be treated. I maintain all the records, I do the research for genealogy... we've been working with council for a number of years to get it all on a database to take the pressure off whoever is sitting here."
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Consistency is not part of the job description and there have been times when things are manic and a cemetery manager would need more than one brain and the arms of an octopus to keep track of things.
"The only year this cemetery has buried more than 200 in my 31 years here, was my first year in the hot seat. And cremations were up as well. I just didn't have time to think.
"The first month we processed 60 clients. I had to learn very quickly."
He was also busy outside, training new staff and doing much of the hard work himself.
He says the best part of the job is when someone comes through the door and they might be grieving, or they might be terminally ill, but when they leave they have everything sorted.
"They feel reasonably settled with decisions made."
Gary says if you can go home feeling comfortable with how you've treated people who are in that situation, it makes the job worthwhile.
"The other thing is knowing that this is a beautiful place and we've kept it that way.
"There's myself, four full-time staff and one part-timer, plus my wife, Leigh, does the bookwork in relation to staff, health and safety and that side if it. Without her I would have failed miserably. We're self-employed and have been contracted to council since 2003. Council owns all the buildings and fixtures, if you like, but we own all the machinery and tools."
Gary has seen a few changes over the years, particularly the growing emphasis on health and safety.
He has also seen more people look for cheaper burial or cremation options, including making their own casket or coffin or getting it made by someone local.
Grave decorations are also making an impact, especially the trend to use solar lights.
"Come up here in the evening or at night and it looks like people are living here: it looks like a city."
There has been trouble, usually individuals showing disrespect for the place and what lies there, and there have been moments he will remember for the wrong reasons, but mostly He and Leigh have enjoyed their time looking after the cemetery.
"Generally you can go home feeling pretty happy with the way things have gone."
Gary enjoys hunting and fishing and hopes to do plenty of both in his retirement.
"I've enjoyed my time here, but I never ever thought I would spend 31 years of my life working in a cemetery."
One thing he has learned from his time: "Getting old is not a right, it's a privilege."
He hopes whoever takes over treats the job and the place with respect and puts the work in to maintain the high standard Gary and his team have set. After all, 31 years is a huge investment.