Romano Polidori: Burying the Dead with Dignity
Surrounded by stark white stones and muted blooms at every turn, Romano Polidori walks with purpose. He stops suddenly in mid-sentence and bends over to wrench a small green intruder from its gravelly home along the path. Tossing it into a nearby trash bin, he continues on.
Romano feels the weight of his duties down to the smallest of weeds, but he is no gardener. He is the sole caretaker of the Cagli cemetery, and pulling weeds is one of the many ways that Romano shows his devotion to its maintenance. With dignity and respect, he carries out his duties as caretaker, preparing gravesites, conducting burials and exhumations, and maintaining the pristine condition of the cemetery grounds.
He strides past gravestones etched with names such as Giuseppe and Paola that date from the 1800s to the present. Photos of the deceased, weatherworn silk flowers, and tea lights blinking through small plastic flames adorn the great marble and granite stones.
This year marks Romano’s 14th at the Cagli cemetery, and by now, he knows this path and these graves by heart. However, these are not the only paths and graves he knows. Romano is in charge of conducting burials at 10 other neighboring cemeteries as well. Although local retirees are responsible for the upkeep at these nearby smaller cemeteries, Romano must ensure the dead are buried there in a dignified manner.
Romano’s workday begins at 7 a.m., when he unlocks the gates, changes into his bright-orange work pants and white-collared shirt, and heads over to the most-recent burial site. A simple, temporary, wooden cross with a small plaque and photo attached marks the spot. A low pile of black earth waits for him.
There, Romano spends the next hour shoveling dirt into a perfect mound on the grave, patting it down, and then covering it with the white gravel characteristic of the cemetery’s recent graves. He steps back, surveys his work, deems it satisfactory, and begins to place the funeral flowers at the grave.
He first lays down the grave blanket of all-white roses, carnations, and chrysanthemums. Then, he surrounds the grave’s periphery with the remaining arrangements of rich red athuriums, pale-pink roses, and fiercely orange Tiger lilies. The result is somber yet breathtakingly beautiful. Pride shows on Romano’s face.
Romano did not plan to go into this line of work. He grew up in nearby Pesaro and worked for a period of time on the roads in Switzerland, where he learned French and developed an affinity for escargot. When he returned to the area, the cemetery caretaker position was the only job available, so he took it. And he hasn’t looked back.
When Romano began work at the cemetery on July 1, 1999, two other caretakers shared the workload. However, budget cuts took effect the next year, and Romano became the cemetery’s sole caretaker.
With no prior cemetery work experience, Romano found himself in charge of the Cagli cemetery and the 10 neighboring smaller ones. But he was undeterred by the increased workload and responsibility. He felt connected to his job – he can still point out the gravesite of the first burial he ever conducted – and stayed.
Approximately 150 burials take place at the Cagli cemetery each year, which leaves Romano with little flexibility in his schedule. He is always on call. The graves continually need maintenance, and a steady stream of visitors passes through the gates everyday.
“There is always something to do,” he says.
Romano moves about the cemetery with a quiet, humble confidence that comes from knowing his work makes a difference in others’ lives. He stops to chat with three visitors, then turns and kindly greets an older gentleman who recently lost his wife.
People often thank him, he says, for the cleanliness of the cemetery and for maintaining it with such finesse. He takes great pride in his work, knowing that it makes families feel good to know their loved ones’ graves are well kept.
Never stopping to talk long, he continues on.
Romano plans to work at the cemetery until he can retire. Burying the dead with dignity and caring for their grieving families with compassion is a solemn duty, a weighty responsibility that Romano carries out with heart-felt empathy.
“If you don’t feel it,” he says, “you should just quit.” And quitting is not something he plans to do anytime soon.