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Jerry Costello

The Gravedigger’s Prayer

Deacon Joe Kittok of Delano, Minnesota, is a gravedigger who takes pride in his work. He looks at it as a mission, really, making sure that the dirt he excavates disturbs the landscape of the cemetery he’s working in as little as possible. And he makes it a true mission by the final act of his assignment: saying a prayer for the person he’s burying. “Every night now,” he said, “I pray for every person I’ve ever buried.” 

                That adds up to quite a few. Deacon Kittok has been digging graves for 44 years now, about 300 a year, at the 30 cemeteries in and around Delano and neighboring communities. He wears bib overalls and a straw hat while he’s working, to go along with his full, bushy grayish beard.

                He took time out to talk with Dave Hrbacek (of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the St, Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese) about his work and his mission, which began with a talk he had with the late Father Michael Tegeder at a nearby parish.

                “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.”

                Deacon Kittok concedes, as does Hrbacek, that some might consider his job a bit creepy, but he goes to his task nonetheless, and finds deep spiritual meaning in what he does. “I try to do the best I can,” he says, “on every single one.”

                He was ordained to the diaconate in 2000 following studies at St. Paul Seminary, under a faculty that included Sister Fran Donnelly, director of LifeTransition Ministries at The Catholic Cemeteries.

                “The burial is really the hardest, most challenging rite of all of them,” she said, “because it’s so final. I think people don’t realize until they are standing there, and then they turn around and walk away.  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.”

                Deacon Kittok simply said he’s glad to have found his niche in life.

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

                John Cherek, longtime director of The Catholic Cemeteries, confirms the value of Deacon Kittok’s calling. “We consider the body to be holy and sacred in life as well as in death,” he said. “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.”

                Inevitably, though Deacon Kittok appears to be hale and hearty, talk turns to his own final days, and his final resting place—and he has a ready answer for anyone interested.

                “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.”

                                               

For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, HOW TO DISCOVER AND CULTIVATE YOUR TALENTS, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org