JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Ben Tucker uses a weed trimmer to cut grass around a headstone at the Natchez National Cemetery on Thursday afternoon. Tucker, himself a U.S. Army veteran, has four uncles buried at the cemetery.
JAY SOWERS / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Ben Tucker uses a weed trimmer to cut grass around a headstone at the Natchez National Cemetery on Thursday afternoon. Tucker, himself a U.S. Army veteran, has four uncles buried at the cemetery.

National Cemetery caretakers take pride in grave upkeep

Published 12:01am Tuesday, May 21, 2013

NATCHEZ — For the men and women who work at the Natchez National Cemetery, Memorial Day doesn’t warrant a trip to pay their respects.

They do that every day of the year.

Clarence Chatman has worked at the cemetery for 11 years, and said the work he does as a cemetery caretaker technician is more than just a job to him.

“It’s a tribute,” Chatman said. “Within these walls are all these heroes from so many different campaigns.

“It’s just an honor and a privilege to do this.”

Chatman and fellow cemetery caretaker Ben Tucker are responsible for, among other things, mowing the grass that weaves around and between 7,977 headstones on the 26-acre property.

“This job that we do, it’s an honorable job,” Tucker said. “I do my best, we all do our best, to do what the National Cemetery Administration calls National Shrine Standard.”

Those strict standards are in place to ensure the uniformity of every burial site, not just at Natchez National Cemetery, but at every such cemetery across the country.

The work to which Chatman and Tucker have dedicated themselves is difficult, physical work that demands a lot from them day after day.

And Tucker would have it no other way.

“I’m 61 so the physical aspects of the job are the most challenging,” Tucker said. “But I love working outdoors, and it keeps me in shape, too.”

Both men are veterans of the U.S. Army, yet that may not be their strongest tie to the hallowed grounds.

Both Chatman and Tucker have relatives buried there. Chatman’s uncle and grandfather and four of Tucker’s uncles are buried in the cemetery.

Sheila Smith, program support assistant at Natchez National Cemetery, said the men don’t put any special emphasis on the headstones of their loved ones.

“I think they care for each grave like it was one of their loved ones,” Smith said.

She added that the time both men spent in the Army has only served to enhance their understanding of the importance of their labor.

“I think because they are veterans, they understand the sacrifice of veterans,” Smith said. “That is why they take such pride in their work.”

Smith, who has a son currently in the military and has friends who have relatives buried at Natchez National Cemetery, said her ties to the armed forces remind her daily of the importance of her work.

But for Smith, the ability to ease the pain of the family and friends of those buried at the cemetery is the greatest responsibility.

“I want people to come here and to feel like we care about their loved one’s gravesite,” Smith said.

“I want them to know we take pride in what we do.”Smith, who began working for the National Cemetery Administration in 1991, remembers the feelings she had then when she first started working at a Hampton National Cemetery in Virginia.

“They were so pristine, and everything was so beautiful,” Smith said. “Those headstones, every direction that you looked they were all lined up, and it was so awe inspiring.”

“Here I am, 20-some years later, still working in a National Cemetery. And I still have that same feeling, when people come in here. We want them to feel a sense of awe and majesty and to know that we take pride in what we do.”

For Chatman, he knows that the work of maintaining these grounds will not end in a few years when he is no longer working between the headstones.

“I enjoy working here,” Chatman said. “And I am looking forward to retiring someday, coming back and seeing how the next generation will take care of it.”

The work may be tough, and the tasks seemingly never ending, but Chatman, Smith and Tucker are all unceasingly grateful for the chance to remember the nation’s fallen heroes.

“I was blessed to get this job,” Tucker said Thursday before picking up his weed trimmer and going about his work.