Delano deacon devotes decades to digging graves as he prays for those laid to rest

| September 7, 2016 | 0 Comments
Deacon Joe Kittok digs a grave at Calvary Cemetery in Delano. He estimates he digs about 300 graves a year in 30 cemeteries in Delano and surrounding communities. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

Deacon Joe Kittok digs a grave at Calvary Cemetery in Delano. He estimates he digs about 300 graves a year in 30 cemeteries in Delano and surrounding communities. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A man of the earth

Part eleven in a 14-part series highlighting local Catholics who live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Deacon Joe Kittok digs holes for a living. He spends an hour and a half several times a week removing about 4 cubic yards of dirt, which he takes to his 35-acre property in Delano and spills onto the ground. He gets $400 per hole, which adds up to a decent living.

But, what makes his job special is not the hole itself, but what goes into it. Or, rather, whom.

The 69-year-old member of St. Maximilian Kolbe in Delano, who is married with three adult sons, is a professional grave digger. He has been doing it for 44 years, and he now digs around 300 graves per year in 30 cemeteries in Delano and surrounding communities.

An important part of the process for him comes at the end, when he stands over the hole after the casket has been placed there and says a prayer for the deceased. It’s his way of carrying out one of the corporal works of mercy: burying the dead. It’s also the fulfillment of a promise he made several decades ago to a parish priest, now-deceased Father Michael Tegeder, at Our Lady of the Lake in Mound.

“We sat down and had a little talk,” Deacon Kittok recalled, not sure exactly when the conversation took place. “I think we were waiting for a funeral. And he said, ‘You know, you’re in a perfect spot to make this your ministry and pray for these people at just the right moment when they might need it.’ I thought about that for all of about 20 minutes, and I decided that I would [follow Father Tegeder’s suggestion]. . . . Every night now, I pray for every person I’ve ever buried.”

The total is somewhere in the thousands, though he has never tallied the number of burials. Yet, he remembers the very first grave he dug, and the person who was buried there — Emily Brown of Delano.

“I can find it in that cemetery to this day,” he said. “It’s a Delano public cemetery, and it was down by the river. It’s a beautiful setting.”

Details of his first digging job, which took place in January 1972, are still vivid in his mind. Freshly returned from two U.S. Army tours in Vietnam, he got off of work in the afternoon at a local plastics manufacturing company near the farm where he grew up a few miles from Delano, then headed to the cemetery in his orange, 1969 Ford Pinto. He brought a lantern, which he lit at dusk. He worked well into the night with the crudest of tools, finishing about six hours later.

“I bought three pieces of plywood and a wheelbarrow and a tarp,” he said. “I think I went and borrowed a shovel and a spade, and later bought those. I put a piece of old sofa cushion on top of the Pinto and put the plywood up there and tied it down, hauled it all out there.”

Deacon Kittok stands outside of his Ford F-450 pickup truck as he unloads dirt excavated from a nearby cemetery. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Deacon Kittok stands outside of his Ford F-450 pickup truck as he unloads dirt excavated from a nearby cemetery. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

A special role

Perhaps a job that could seem creepy, Deacon Kittok finds deep spiritual meaning in the task, and sheds tears when asked what it means to bury members of his community, many of whom he knows.

“I bury about 300 people [a year], more or less,” he said. “I try to do the best I can on every single one.”

His livelihood sprouted when a neighbor of his family came over to seek help digging graves.

“He was in charge of a Delano public cemetery, and he was looking for somebody else to dig graves because he had a falling out with the fellow who did it at the time,” Deacon Kittok recalled. “And, my brother Dave and I were there, and we decided that between the two of us we could handle something like that. We both had jobs. He was a farmer and I worked in the plastics factory. . . . So, he took the first couple. Then, his girlfriend at the time told him that she didn’t like that idea. Plus, they [jobs] come at inconvenient times. So, he gave it up, turned it over to me, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

The job begins with taking great care to excavate the dirt so as to provide the least amount of disturbance to the landscape at the cemetery. It ends with saying a prayer while he covers the vault containing the casket with the same dirt he removed.

This final act is an important part, even though family members might not notice him while he is standing at the grave waiting for them to leave at the conclusion of the burial rite. Nonetheless, they benefit from his service, as he puts earth back into the hole and prays their loved one into eternity.

“The burial is really the hardest, most challenging rite of all of them because it’s so final,” said Sister Fran Donnelly, director of LifeTransition Ministries at The Catholic Cemeteries, who taught Deacon Kittok during his formation at the St. Paul Seminary before his ordination to the diaconate in 2000. “And, I think people don’t realize until they are standing there, and then they turn around and walk away [from the grave at the conclusion of the burial prayer service]. How reassuring for these people to know that there’s somebody like Joe there to care for that hole in the ground — to fill it again and make it safe, to make it secure and then to be praying for the person besides.”

When asked to describe his ministry, Deacon Kittok simply says he’s glad to have “found my niche in life.”

“God wants us to be useful, and I enjoy doing this and I think I serve people justly,” he said.

For people like John Cherek, longtime director of The Catholic Cemeteries, what Deacon Kittok does has far deeper meaning than just making him feel useful.

“I would see it as a connection to mercy,” Cherek said. “That is as fine an expression of mercy as I can think of, in terms of this particular corporal work.”

To understand what Deacon Kittok’s service means, it’s important to understand what is happening during the act of burial, Cherek said.

“When we dig the hole . . . we’re opening up a space for this person who was created in the image of God,” he said. “We consider the body to be holy and sacred in life as well as in death. And we are going to reverently and respectfully care for that body, just as we cared for the body with the other six corporal works of mercy, or we cared for the body during the time when it was living. We reverently place it in the ground, and we do that because we believe as a community, this person still belongs to the community, but with the dead.”

Mercy in the midst of grief

In the last decade or so, Deacon Kittok has also presided at funerals and burial rites at cemeteries. He even got called to a home right after a person died.

On March 15, his longtime friend in Delano, Tom Redmond, died unexpectedly. Redmond’s daughter, Pauline Thaemert, arrived at the home after calling to check on him. She then decided to call Deacon Kittok after the paramedics had arrived, even though she herself is Lutheran.

“Joe came over right away,” she said. “He sat in the living room while they were working on Dad. He said, ‘Well, I don’t do this a lot, but I’ll do what I can.’ He did really well.

“My dad was a very down-to-earth man, and I knew he’d want Joe there.”

Deacon Kittok, who had plowed Redmond’s driveway many times over the years, went on to dig his friend’s grave at St. Peter’s Cemetery and perform the funeral at the St. Peter campus of St. Maximilian Kolbe. Just four months later, he did the same for Redmond’s wife, Susie, who died July 12. Her funeral and burial also were at St. Peter.

In Thaemert’s mind, there was no other choice than Deacon Kittok to dig the graves and conduct the funerals, even though she realized it was tough for him to do this for his friends in the midst of his own grief.

“We appreciate him so much,” Thaemert said. “[Having him there] made it easier to deal with the grief.”

On July 30, just two weeks after her mom’s funeral, Thaemert’s daughter, Jacqueline, got married, with her wedding to Colin Lesner also taking place at St. Peter. Naturally, Pauline invited Deacon Kittok to the wedding. He came without hesitation, with Pauline sitting in the same spot as she did for her parents’ funerals.

Now that he is approaching 100 funerals performed, in addition to all of the graves he has dug, he can offer a wealth of experience and compassion to those who are mourning, with the grief often in an intense and raw state. Yet, it isn’t necessarily nuggets of profound wisdom that people find comforting, he said.

“They just need somebody to listen,” he said. “Let them talk and you listen. . . . That’s about all you can do.

“There’s no magic words that you can say that would comfort somebody who’s lost somebody who’s very dear to them.”

Deacon Kittok has no plans to retire. That firm commitment is aided by machinery he has accumulated over the years that makes the job easier than when he started. He now owns a hydraulic excavator, which eliminates the need to dig by hand, a task he did for the first 19 years. He also owns a 2015 Ford F-450 pickup truck that has a lift to elevate the bed so that the dirt he excavates spills off easily. The process is so slick that he has been known to sometimes dig two graves in one day. He did so just last month.

Someday, of course, his time will come and he will have to be on the receiving end of services he has performed for more than four decades.

What then?

“I tell people the story that I’m going to dig my own grave,” he said. “It’s right next to the road, so it’ll be really convenient at St. Joseph’s [Cemetery in Delano]. It’s close to my parents and grandparents.”

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Category: Featured, Year of Mercy