In the midst of death we are in life – musings of Sleepy Hollow caregiver

“In the midst of death we are in life.” Henry David Thoreau made this observation two centuries ago when walking through Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, seeing the sunlight dappling through the leaves. The idyllic resting grounds soothed and inspired Thoreau, and in the end became the final resting place of this famed author, his grave simply marked “Henry.” 

This quote about the juxtaposition of the living and the dead is also perhaps the best description of Patricia (“Tish”) Hopkins, caretaker of the Concord cemeteries. She is a gravedigger, tombstone guardian, landscaper, comforter, and administrator, fully embracing life while safeguarding Concord’s three burial grounds.  Her office is a simple garage at the back of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery and with her blonde hair, jeans, and work boots, she doesn’t look goth or creepy. “My job is envisioned as being dark or scary in some way, but in reality it is the best job in the world,” said Hopkins, who looks more like the girl next door than an undertaker. 

Hopkins has been head of Concord’s cemetery operations for over three decades, and other than short gigs elsewhere, it’s the only job she’s known. “Do I have a lot of people under me?”she jokes and the answer is yes and no. There are 10 thousand people interred in Sleepy Hollow, including Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Also buried there are the inventor of the Concord grape; the composer of “The Little Drummer Boy” and the first woman to be issued a driver’s license in the United States. But Hopkins has no direct staff members under her, just the help of contractors and the DPW and Highway Department. 

Hopkins treats her role with gravity but is quick to laugh and says, “It’s a tough subject to find that happy medium between serious and respectful and fun, although people purchasing graves often tell me it was not as bad as they had anticipated. They say they actually enjoyed coming in – not that they want to see me again anytime soon.”

On a warm August day, Hopkins is preparing for the burial of a beloved wife and mother, 91 years old. A small precise rectangular hole has been dug with a metal plate placed over it. The adjacent tombstone has her name and her husband’s on it, with her passing date yet to be added. Hopkins bends down and blows the dirt off the burial area and arranges pine bows in a pleasing pattern. “It’s ready now,” she says, climbing into her black pick-up truck. Some days there are no internments; other times, four to five a week. 

Hopkins started at Sleepy Hollow as a teen, mowing between the headstones, raking leaves and digging graves. She became the cemetery supervisor at 18, embracing the site’s undulating landscape, gently curving roads and contemplative plantings. Her days are filled with trimming shrubs, working with families to purchase a gravesite, digging with the mini-excavator, locating graves for visitors or marking out locations for headstones. It’s an idyllic existence as Emerson reflected in his 1855 dedication speech: “When these acorns that are falling at our feet, are oaks overshadowing our children in a remote century, this mute green bank will be full of history: the good, the wise, and the great will have left their names and virtues on the trees; heroes, poets, beauties, sanctities, benefactors, will have made the air tuneable and articulate.”

And someday, Hopkins said she too will be buried at Sleepy Hollow, along with along with generations of her family and  her friends. As far as her epithet? She says she hasn’t given much thought to it but ‘“She put the fun in funeral’ might be a good one.” “I would be happy with just a little engraving of a shovel and a shamrock,” she said. She looks out over the graveyard and turns and walks down the path toward her office.

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