By Barb Arland-Fye
Josh Schneider of Sacred Heart Parish in Melcher has one of the most unusual occupations in Iowa: he’s a grave digger who digs graves by hand.
The 31-year-old husband, father and parish council president is a third-generation grave digger whose work is admired by funeral homes and families of the departed.
“He does a really good job,” says John Pierschbacher of Pierschbacher Funeral Home & Cremation Services in Melcher-Dallas. The holes Schneider digs “are the prettiest holes you’ve seen.”
Mike Gray, president of the St. Mary Cemetery Board in Albia, said it’s amazing to watch Schneider work because he makes digging a plot that is 3-feet wide by 8-feet long and 6 feet deep look effortless. The cemetery board sought Schneider’s services after another digger damaged the cemetery grounds with machinery typically used for digging graves.
“The funeral homes know we allow only one person to dig graves in our cemetery, and that’s Josh,” Gray said.
It’s a 42-mile drive to Albia for Schneider, but the work is worth the commute. While he’s Catholic, Schneider’s approach to the job is nondenominational. He’ll dig graves for Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and other people, too. He’s dug graves in about 50 cemeteries in four counties, but works mostly in Marion County, which is near Des Moines.
He’d probably have work in other cemeteries if he had the time. “There are very few people who dig by hand,” says Pierschbacher, who’s used Schneider’s services for at least 10 years.
Funeral homes like Pierschbacher’s call Schneider when they need a grave dug. He charges $450-$500 for his services. The tool of his trade is a spade and he’s worn a few of them out in the 10 years since grave-digging became his livelihood.
Family got him interested in this career. His grandfather, Penny Schneider, started digging graves in 1956 and was working until he was in his 70s. He’s 86 now. Josh Schneider’s dad, the late Harold Schneider, dug graves part-time, as did an uncle. Josh Schneider started digging graves full-time in 1999. He also farms on the side.
When he got married in 2001, his wife, Mandy, began marking his grave-digging jobs on a calendar. “I know the first year she kept track I dug 140,” Schneider said. “I’ve dug close to 100 this year. We’re right on track.”
He digs graves year-round. When the ground is frozen, he has to light a fire to thaw it before digging. Some weeks he has no graves to dig and other weeks he’ll have six to do. While he’s digging he’ll listen to country music playing in his nearby pickup truck.
Schneider finds the work satisfying. “When you get done, at least you can see what you did,” he says. The most challenging aspect of the work is coordinating efforts with a variety of people. “That can be a chore.”
Sometimes while Schneider is digging he’ll think about the deceased person who will be placed in the grave. Other times he’ll think about his own mortality. “It makes you think that someday it’s going to be for you. Sometimes I think about that.”
Occasionally, the second of his three children — 5-year-old Anthony — accompanies Dad to work. “He likes to help me,” Schneider says. “I’ll find a small hole that he can dig a spade into.” But whether Anthony becomes the fourth generation of grave diggers in the Schneider family is anyone’s guess, Josh Schneider says.