Chris Bornitz has the typical look of a person that spends most of their time working outdoors — tanned arms, casual work clothes, scuffed boots, baseball cap and sunglasses. This is his usual attire when tending to the grounds of the Yankton Cemetery.

Having been the cemetery sexton for 21 years now, Bornitz knows the ins and outs of the approximately 40 acres of burial land like the back of his hand. It’s here that he spends a majority of his time mowing, weeding and trimming the foliage that encompasses the property.

He also has assistance from two state trustees from the Mike Durfee State Prison.

When not at the cemetery, Bornitz assists Parks & Recreation with “odds and ends” jobs.

Working Among The Dead

For the most part, Bornitz finds his job relatively peaceful.

On a typical day, he comes to the cemetery at 7 a.m. and spends a few hours mowing before moving on to any other groundwork that needs to be done. He finishes his work day around 3 p.m.

In addition to the groundwork, he is responsible for selling plots and digging graves.

He said that the former is the most difficult part of his job, particularly when meeting with families who have lost a loved one unexpectedly.

Digging the graves presents its own challenges, which can vary depending on the season.

In the winter months, snow is the main obstacle Bornitz and his helpers have to overcome. Just as much of their time is spent mowing in the summer months, they spend hours upon hours shoveling snow off the cemetery roads and removing snow for funeral processions and to dig graves.

Bornitz said he spends most of that season helping Parks & Recreation with their projects.

An all-season concern is what will happen if a grave collapses.

Bornitz explained that prior to the mid-1950s, wood was used to line a grave before concrete. When the wooden vault gives in, the ground above it collapses. According to Bornitz, the collapse can be prompted by a mower being ridden over the grave’s plot. Fortunately, no one has ever been harmed by it.

Those wishing to hear stories of supernatural occurrences from Bornitz would be disappointed. The closest to a spooky moment he’s gotten has been the few times he’s monitored the cemetery on Halloween night.

“It does make you feel uneasy sitting out there in the dark,” he admitted.

Some of the headstones contributed to that creepiness by being very reflective, to the point where light bounces off several of them.

“They’re almost like mirrors, they’re polished so nicely,” Bornitz remarked.

Other than that, the only source of strangeness comes from those who like to do morbid things on cemetery grounds. Bornitz has found burnt candles and, one time, a pigeon with its head cut off.

Due to the grounds not having any electricity, security cameras are unlikely to happen, Bornitz said.

Thinking Of The Living

While he may spend his time working among those that have passed, Bornitz regularly interacts with the cemetery’s many visitors, remarking that it’s one of his favorite parts of the job.

“You get to hear fascinating stories about how so and so got here, what brought them to Yankton and what they did once they were here,” he said.

However, not all of his interactions with the public are pleasant. He’s been on the receiving end of complaints about the state of the grass (which is watered by rain only) and the theft of objects left by headstones.

“I’ve had people tell me about seeing little kids pulling a wagon through the cemetery and taking items like flowers from graves,” he said.

He advises people not to set anything on graves that is valuable, personally or financially, as it may either get stolen or broken.

When not working on grounds upkeep, Bornitz likes to work on projects that spruce up the area. One such project located on the western side of the cemetery is a fountain surrounded by flowers and a couple benches. Bornitz said he added it because it’s a nice feature among the various headstones.

It shows how much he cares about making the cemetery look good.

“It’s nice, quiet and peaceful (out here),” he said. “I like my job.”