West Deer resident Howard Kirkbride tries to limit his visits to Bull Creek Cemetery to at least once a week, but his passion makes that impossible.
The 77-year-old has given his time to the cemetery, on Tarentum-Culmerville Road, for over 28 years. He became chairman of its board of directors two years ago after serving as vice-chairman.
When he first joined the council, he never thought he would end up taking care of burials and burial grounds.
Her duties include keeping the lawn free of branches and sticks, making sure the graves are leveled, keeping detailed grave records, and mapping each section of the cemetery.
“I take great satisfaction in caring for this place,” he said.
He credits Past President Loyal Fredley for providing him with the skills to ensure the cemetery is at its best. The transition to president was easy for Kirkbride, who said he had already been in his current role for 10 to 15 years when Fredley fell ill. Fredley passed away in 2020.
As a cemetery caretaker, Kirkbride never knows when an undertaker will call for a funeral. He must be ready at any time to organize one. “It’s like a 24/7 job,” he said.
Bull Creek Presbyterian Church was established in 1794. The earliest burial without a headstone in the cemetery was in 1802. The oldest burial with a headstone was in 1804.
The cemetery will function under the church with burials until 1955, when the cemetery was considered separate from the church. Kirkbride said burials stopped taking place at the old site in 1960.
The current site used for burials is near one of the old church buildings which is no longer in use. The land occupies 4 acres, with additional acres available for future use.
Kirkbride predicts that it will take 50 to 100 years before the additional land is used for burials.
The cemetery hosts an average of five to six burials per year. Kirkbride noted a record number of burials in 2021 when the council was due to do 15. There was only one covid-related death, he said.
“It was a lot for us,” Kirkbride said.
His daughter, Deb Walsh, is the board secretary. She likes to learn the operations of the cemetery from her father.
“It’s really peaceful working there (at the cemetery),” she says.
Because the cemetery is non-profit and independent, the couple are proud to pay special attention to burials. Bull Creek Cemetery offers a more personal touch “than many other burial grounds,” Kirkbride said.
Kirkbride performs major cleanups on site twice a year. In the fall, he removes the decorations to prepare for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Then, in March, he does another cleaning to prepare for the upcoming spring and summer break.
The work is a one-man-show. It takes him about two hours to complete the task.
“I’m happy to be able to stand up and look over it and see a job well done,” he said.
On Memorial Day, he makes sure to place a flag near every veteran’s grave. He will occasionally check the flags to fix any wind blowing or being hit by animals, such as deer or bears.
Kirkbride knows he will eventually have to think about his future. His daughter and son-in-law having learned from him, he knows that the cemetery will be in good hands when he can no longer perform these duties.
“Everything is well covered,” he said. “I will do what I can and, if it gets too much, that’s when I quit.”