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Morning Sun
  • John Knapp Jr. takes pride in taking care of others loved ones at Mt. Olive Cemetery

  • John Knapp Jr. arrives at work each morning at about 6 a.m. and checks the  equipment he’ll use throughout the day. That could be one of the industrial riding lawnmowers sitting inside the door of the tan metal shed, or the Bobcat track hoe parked in the corner.

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  • John Knapp Jr. arrives at work each morning at about 6 a.m. and checks the  equipment he’ll use throughout the day. That could be one of the industrial riding lawnmowers sitting inside the door of the tan metal shed, or the Bobcat track hoe parked in the corner.
    He starts early in the summer months due to the scorching heat, which can make the work of maintaining the grounds at Mount Olive Cemetery at 505 E. Quincy Street very uncomfortable. Knapp has been the primary caretaker of the 33.5-acre cemetery since 1989, after his mining job ended. There were a lot of applicants for the position, Knapp said, but he had experience using heavy equipment.
    “And it was always something I thought I’d like to try,” he said.
    Knapp’s sphere of maintenance includes mowing the lawn — which can take as little as three days and as long as five, depending on circumstances — opening and closing graves, picking up flowers left by family members, pruning the trees and keeping the headstones clean. To keep up in summer months Knapp hires a part-time assistant.
    At 57, Knapp has the darkened skin of a man who has spent years working under the sun. But underneath what some might call a gruff exterior lies a kind man who is eager lend a hand to anyone who shows up.
    “If people come to the cemetery I’ll stop what I’m doing to assist them,” Knapp said. “I also help them with genealogy, and finding their family stones.”
    Knapp also is responsible for the upkeep of the many vaults inside Mount Olive Abbey, the cemetery’s large 83-year-old mausoleum — the interior plaster trim was recently renovated, and workers are currently installing motion-sensitive lights.
    Before the city purchased the narrow Bobcat Knapp uses to dig graves, he had to maneuver a large back hoe through the closely-set stones, which posed obvious hazards. But even now, if the ground is too-much softened by rain, Knapp will dig graves by hand with a shovel.
    “It can be a seven-day job, but you do what you have to do,” he said.
    There’s also the issue of vandalism, which Knapp said happens quite often. In one case, an entire row of headstones was tipped over. When that happens, Knapp said, all he can do is stand them up on wood blocks and wait for professional setters to arrive to re-affix the stones to their foundations.
    The physical labor can be intensive. But Knapp said the hardest part of his job is assisting grieving families.
    “The toughest part is burying people, like when you have someone your age or a baby,” Knapp said. “There are a lot of families that deal with death, and some can handle it and some can’t. You take a lot of that home with you.”
    Page 2 of 2 - Knapp said he also finds himself as an occasional grief counselor for distraught family members, and for visitors who are trying to decide what post-mortem arrangements to make for themselves and their families. In one instance, he said, a son couldn’t decide whether to lay his mother to rest in the mausoleum, but it was clear he did not want to bury her.
    “I showed him a grave, and when he saw the inside he came back again and said ‘Thank you so much!’” Knapp said. “Another guy sat with me on the steps and said ‘I don’t want to be buried underground.’”
    Tough or not, Knapp said he knew when he signed on that difficult situations would come with the territory.
    “When I started it didn’t bother me what I had to do,” Knapp said. “But dealing with families, especially if they lost a baby and you can see how hurt they are and don’t want to leave, that can really start to get to you.”
    Knapp described himself as not particularly religious, but he says he finds joy in helping people know their loved one are being taken care of after death.
    “The way I look at it, the man up there,” Knapp said, pointing toward the sky, “I’m helping him down here. And when I mow the grass, I’m giving them haircuts.  They’re my people.”

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