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Grave Undertaking

By Karel Bond Lucander | Photography by Lisa Turnage

Posted: Monday, Sep. 30, 2013

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With Halloween on the horizon, many well-manicured lawns around Lake Norman are being transformed into graveyards—eerie headstones dotting front yards, giant spider webs draping through trees, and rattling skeletons dangling from porch awnings.

Billy Jones, on the other hand, spends most of his time in real cemeteries, traipsing through the damp, silent earth, and winding his way around graves in the wee hours of the morning. Jones is a third-generation gravedigger. Last year alone he dug 560 graves. And he’s keeping it a family business—Jones works with his son, Andrew, nephew, Zane, brother Johnnie, and his wife, Gail, who keeps the books.

The Jones family has been digging graves in the Lake Norman area for 61 years, since Billy’s father, Andrew, and grandpa, Reid, started digging with pickaxes, spades, and shovels. They dug deep, one mound at a time, hauling the dirt off in a wheelbarrow and earning $10 for that first grave dug at Iredell Memorial Park in 1952. With a gaggle of six kids at his feet, including the youngest, Billy, Andrew Jones taught his children the strenuous art of breaking ground and creating a perfect cavity to cradle someone’s loved one in the afterlife.

This patriarch set an example of putting in a full day’s work and then some—Andrew Jones worked third shift at a mill in Mooresville, dug graves during the day, and also repaired watches to make ends meet.

“He used to say if he could get four hours of sleep a day, he was doing fine,” Billy Jones says. “Family came first to him, and if my dad was living today, my business would all be his because no one deserves it more than him.”

By age 16, Billy was helping his dad regularly and eventually took a job at Nicholson Funeral Home in Statesville. Along with digging graves, he started driving cars and doing whatever else the funeral business called for, while also working for a glass company and in a mill. In fact, all five Jones boys, save one, dug graves, worked for funeral homes, and a few even worked at Ostwalt Vault Co., headquartered in Troutman, which manufactures the airtight containers caskets are placed in.

Finally in 1992, after decades of digging for others, Billy went into business for himself. He called his company “Little J’s Backhoe,” and initially invested more than $70,000 in equipment. He eventually amassed two backhoes, two dump trucks, one pickup, and a mini excavator. The mini excavator can maneuver between two grave markers with pinpoint accuracy in the adept hands of someone like Billy.

His first contract was for Joe Troutman, whose family has owned Nicholson Funeral Home for more than 30 years. (Troutman’s ancestors arrived in 1748, and the town is their namesake.)

“Billy is dependable, honest, and a tremendously hard worker,” says Troutman, president of Nicholson Funeral Home. “If you can say that about a person, you’ve said a lot. There’s a right way and a wrong way to go about everything—he knows and does the right way. And we’re talking thousands and thousands of graves.”

Jones is also the exclusive gravedigger for Nicholson and Bunch Johnson Funeral Homes in Statesville; Oakwood Cemetery and Belmont Cemetery under the jurisdiction of the City of Statesville; and Chapman Funeral Home in Stony Point (Alexander and Iredell counties).

Most days, he is onsite from sunup to sundown and beyond. Christmas is the only day he takes off, and that was a luxury he finally succumbed to. His business has taken its toll on his body: at age 57, he has had two heart stints and two knee replacements. “It’s very physical work, and I’m feeling it at the end of the day,” he says.

With as much time as he spends in cemeteries, Billy says he’s not a superstitious man, and doesn’t believe in ghosts or spirits, even on Halloween, a time when some believe the souls of the dead walk the earth. "Yet it can be kind of spooky in the wintertime, especially after it snows,” he says. “But you have to consider: it’s not the dead people bothering you, it’s the living.”

And when Billy Jones dies some day, he has a plan. “I’m old fashioned; I want to be put in the vault. And my son said he will be the one to dig it.”

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