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DeKalb Countys legendary gravedigger
Frank Thomas dug 8,000 graves but never buried a soul
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Photos by Ken Beck Frank Thomas, 77, dug 8,000 graves in more than 30 counties over a 52-year career. He dug the majority of them by himself using a shovel and a pick. The 7-foot-tall, retired gravedigger stands in Salem Cemetery in Liberty, Tennessee. For about 30 years, I buried almost everybody here, said Thomas, who plans to be laid to rest in this graveyard.


LIBERTY, TENN. — Few people have lowered more dead bodies down into the good Tennessee earth than gentle giant Frank Thomas.

Throughout his 45-year career, this 7-foot-tall Liberty native paid passionate attention to the details of carving out a perfect rectangle in the ground, a hole that would be the final resting place for a loved one.

"Anybody can dig a hole in the ground, but not anybody can dig a grave. It’s a sacred place. I would say I’ve dug 8,000 graves. The first 35 years all by hand, most of the time me only," said Thomas, 77, who hung up his pick and shovel 12 years ago.

"I dug graves for all the funeral homes in DeKalb and Wilson County over the years. Sometimes I dug four a day, and they never did have to wait on me, but it was hard. I’ve dug a many a grave with a pick and shovel and didn’t ever stop to get a drink of water, had my back bent until I finished, and then I’d go dig another."

The gravedigger labored in hundreds of cemeteries across 37 Middle Tennessee counties.

"Cannon, Smith, Rutherford, Davidson, Williamson, White, Putnam, Bedford. I could just keep on naming them," he said, ticking off a partial list.

Among a handful of the businesses that requested his talents were Partlow, Ligon & Bobo and Nave funeral homes in Wilson County, Bass and Sanderson in Smith County, and Woodbury and Smith in Cannon County.

He wept over graves


Thomas tells on himself, saying, "You might think these fellows done this every day, your heart would harden, but my heart never hardened. I’ve cried at many a funeral and didn’t even know the people. I always treated people, regardless of who they was, how poor they was, as nice and kind as I could be and showed ’em the respect they deserved.

"I been quit 12 years. When I first started, undertakers couldn’t get nobody to dig graves. Nobody wanted to. They begged people to do it. When I began I didn’t know nobody who dug graves as a profession. People looked down on me and acted like I was a low-class clown or trash, as if I couldn’t find a living. But I saw I could make a good living at it. Now I know undertakers that has quit being undertakers to start digging graves."

The gravedigger can spin tales of his calling for hours on end. He possesses a phenomenal memory, and if you gave him the name of one of the departed he laid to rest, he likely could tell you the cemetery where he or she reposes in the sleep of the ages.

Thomas has a few mementoes. "I’ve got dirt out of the first grave I ever dug in one bottle, and in another bottle is the dirt from the last grave. The first one was in Liberty and the last at Shop Springs in Bryan Cemetery," he recollected.

Thomas’ final job was on Oct. 11, 2004, his 65th birthday.

"I sat there after everybody left and cried like a baby because I knew it was my last one. I enjoyed it. I didn’t enjoy everybody dying. I won’t get out of that myself," he said.

Started career as teenager


Thomas began assisting a neighbor in digging graves for Evans Funeral Home in Liberty in the early 1950s. He was 13, and the chore allowed him to skip classes in high school. By the early 1960s, he had teamed with his father, Noble Thomas. At that time, the task paid a meager fee.

"Me and Daddy, we got $25 a grave, 12½ for him, 12½ for me. Mr. Jewell Nave [who operated funeral homes in Lebanon and Watertown] volunteered and gave me $35. Every year or two, I’d go up a little bit. Later on I had to furnish the lowering device, the tent, chairs and artificial turf. When I quit, I was getting $500. Now most are getting $800 or $900," he said.

"All that 45 years, I don’t reckon but one grave I didn’t have ready out of 8,000. It was solid rock, top to bottom. I take my work very, very seriously."

Thomas gave himself half a day to dig a grave if he didn’t have a heavy load. If he were digging in soft soil clear of rock, he could cut it out in two hours or less. He was on call from funeral home directors 24/7.

"Never had a vacation in my life. I can’t think of but one or two Christmas days I spent with my wife and family," he said of digging across six decades.

He and his wife, Betty, have been married 54 years. He met her on the Woodbury town square, as she hails from the Cannon County community of Ivy Bluff. Betty is a quilter and stands 5-feet-tall to Frank’s 7-feet. The couple raised a son and daughter and have four grandchildren.

They own a home in Liberty and a small farm in the DeKalb County countryside a few miles from where the Wilson, Cannon and DeKalb boundary lines meet.

Thomas also owns three acres of hallow ground on the back side of Salem Cemetery in Liberty where he sells burial plots. When his time comes, this is where he plans to be laid to rest.

Partnered with his father


Born the son of a sharecropper, Thomas grew up with three brothers and graduated from Liberty High School in 1958. The sole survivor of his siblings, he dug two of their graves.

He says his father gave up farming to become a gravedigger.

"Daddy couldn’t drive a vehicle. There were two other guys. One of them couldn’t drive. The third guy had a pickup truck. They would dig graves for Walker Funeral Home in Smithville. That’s where we all started," said Thomas.

"Then they started digging for two little funeral homes in Alexandria: Avant and Anderson. The old fellow who had the truck quit. After that the other guy quit too. So that left Daddy without a job.

"Daddy said, ‘I reckon I’ll quit too.’ I was working then as a bricklayer’s helper. I said, ‘No, Daddy, don’t quit. I’ll help.’"

A second funeral home in Smithville, Love-Cantrell, came calling, which allowed Frank and his father to work side by side in graveyards for six or seven years before the elder Thomas retired.

"I started it as my regular job in making a living in 1965. My son, Donald, started helping me when he was 8 years old and helped me in the summertime until he finished high school," said Thomas.


The myth of

6 feet under


Getting down to basics, he reported, "You’ve always heard a grave is 6 feet deep. That’s not true. They’re only 4½ feet deep, and 3 feet wide and 8 feet long. That is the standard around these parts. I always carried a 3-foot yardstick to make sure the grave is 3 feet wide, and I carried a 4-foot stick, flipped it twice to make sure it was long enough. I always wanted to be sure that the vault didn’t hang [on its way down].

"Now there are gravediggers that don’t never get in the grave," said the man who carefully inspected the bottom of every grave he made.

"Back when I dug a grave by hand, you got to haul out about half the dirt. It would take 20 wheelbarrows full. Around the graveyard were peoples’ graves that was sunk down, so I’d take that extra dirt and put it on those graves and take my rake and smooth it down. They don’t do that now. They take a backhoe and take the dirt off behind the cemetery and dump it.

"I enjoyed it. The reason I enjoyed it so much is that most people, 95 percent of the families, were nice. Everyone treated me nice even though I was a nobody. After I got done, I’d go sit down on the back of the property and get out of the way till it comes my time to do things. There was a lot of times the family would go over and thank me for how I did it, not leaving a mess. Make me feel good. But it’s not that way now."

Expanding his boundaries


With his business firmly planted in DeKalb County, he then began getting calls from Wilson County funeral homes.

"I was digging a grave one day in Alexandria at New Hope Cemetery. Mike Hunter [of Hunter Funeral Home in Watertown] drove up in front of the church, and he said, ‘Can you dig a grave for us tomorrow?’ I said, ‘Why, yes, I reckon I can.’

"That body was coming out of Nashville, going to Jones Hill [cemetery]. I dug that one and next day had another to dig. Mr. Nave [Hunter’s father-in-law, who owned Nave Funeral Home in Lebanon] called. I guess he buried 80 percent of the people in Wilson County.

"He had two men who dug graves. He said, ‘If I call them, half the time they won’t answer the phone.’ He asked me, ‘Will you dig my graves?’ I said, ‘It looks like I got a pretty heavy load, but yes, I will.’"

After preparing graves for Nave a couple of years, Ligon & Bobo Funeral called upon Thomas to do the same for them. And a few years later, Jackie Partlow, owner of Partlow Funeral Home, also requested his services.

"I remember one night, way after dark, Mr. Nave called and said, ‘Frank, I’ve got one to bury in Greenvale.’ I had another grave to dig the next day over in Jackson County.

"About midnight I got out of bed and told my wife, ‘I’m going to dig that grave.’ I carried a coal oil lamp and got up there with that lamp and went over that graveyard hunting that tombstone, and I lit into it. When undertakers set the time for a funeral, they’re not gonna change it. I had as high as a five graves a day. I really had to move dirt to get ’em dug.

"Seventy-five percent of the time I was digging, they would bury ’em that day. I’d get up by daylight, drive my car to the cemetery and look for the tombstone with a cigarette lighter."

Neither snow nor rain nor heat


Just like a farmer, the gravedigger found that his work in terra firma could turn into torment caused due to extreme weather and rocky ground.

"It didn’t matter how hot or how cold it was. I even dug one in a tornado. It come a tornado, blowed my tent plumb down. So much water turned into the grave, we had to wait two or three hours to bury the body," he said.

"One year we had an inch of ice and six inches of snow on the ground, and me and my boy was asked to bury a lady on Jones Hill. It was coldest day on record for that day, 18 degrees below zero. The grave was at the back end, and me and my boy put all our stuff in a little red wagon and pulled it up that hill like a mule. While we were in the grave, icicles formed on our caps. Later that afternoon, they salted the road for the folks coming to the funeral."

So what did the gravedigger do when his shovel struck limestone?

"We’d take a sledgehammer and bust our brains out," answered Thomas. "If we couldn’t get it, we’d call back to the funeral home and have them call a contactor to drill or dynamite it.

"People out of McMinnville came out with a grave-digging machine in the mid-1970s. Awfullest-looking thing you ever seen but dug prettiest graves you ever seen. So I go to buy me one, a little ole Terrmite backhoe that had a 14-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine, and I hated that thing. I’d take it to the graveyard a many a time and leave it on the driveway and dig the grave by hand. So I sold that thing."

Thomas’s tools of the trade were his trusty shovel and pick. He also carried an ax to cut out tree roots, a claw hammer to nail down the top of wood coffins and a hand broom to sweep the bottom of the grave clean.

"I guess I went through 20 to 25 shovels. You wouldn’t think a man would wear out a pick. Some of them I wore out to the nub," he said.

Ghosts in the



While not a man who believes in haunts, he confessed that he was spooked so badly one night that he fled a graveyard.

"The scariest thing, I’m digging one at Horton Springs in Smith County, one of the times had to get it done that day. I was digging by hand at night in the bottom by truck light. Them lights was shining on tombstones. All of a sudden I heard a woman hollering. I raised up and looked around the graveyard. I didn’t see a soul.

"She hollered again. I loaded my stuff and shovel in the back and got in my truck and went home. I came back next morning to finish it. I never saw nobody," he said with a laugh.

Editor’s note: Part two continues next week