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In Orlando, the gravedigger's work begins

ORLANDO — It wasn't until Tuesday that the gravedigger woke up to the enormity of the task before him.

For Juan DeLeon, 33, the murders of 49 people in a gay nightclub in downtown Orlando on Sunday morning were an unspeakable tragedy. His wife knew two of the victims from her job at Universal Orlando. While their deaths struck him as most deaths don't, it wasn't until later that he realized the role he would play.

"Oh, I've got to go and dig graves for these people," he said.

In DeLeon's line of work, death has a peak season, and summer in Florida is it. He typically digs three to four graves a day, but after Sunday's massacre, work orders are flooding in from Orlando, Kissimmee and Clermont.

Many of the dead are being sent back to their families in Puerto Rico and Mexico. A small number are being cremated. But the task of burying victims here in Florida will fall to him and the staff of Quality Vaults Inc.

"It's tough to deal with the sorrow every day," he said. "And now with this tragedy, it makes it even harder."

The day after Omar Mateen walked into Pulse armed with an assault rifle, Orlando's mayor, Buddy Dyer, called Don Price, the longtime sexton of the city-owned Greenwood Cemetery, with a request. He wanted to donate plots to as many victims' families as wanted them, and he wanted Price to find a prime spot, preferably one with a view.

By Thursday morning, Price was waiting and ready for the men with the backhoe and shovels to arrive. The families of three victims had already chosen their sites from among the cemetery's 120 acres of nearly silent green.

Friday morning, 25-year-old Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25, would be buried there, followed by Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21, and Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25, on Saturday.

DeLeon has been digging graves in the Florida heat for three years. When he answered an ad looking for someone with a commercial driver's license, he didn't know exactly what he was getting into, but it was quickly explained to him at the job interview.

"To me, it's a job, it's work," he said. Anyone who digs half a dozen graves a day is bound not to be overly sentimental about those he has buried.

But there are aspects of the work that trouble him — children, for instance. As the father of two boys, ages 11 and 8, there is nothing worse than burying a child.

"I prefer not to know the person," he said. Sometimes, he comes across his own last name on the work orders and he calls his family to make sure they're not missing anyone.

It hasn't happened yet, he said. If it ever did, "I don't know if I'd be able to do it."

Price, who began working at Greenwood 30 years ago, still remembers the first gay person he buried. It was in 2005. The deceased's sister came to his office with a man she kept calling her brother's "business partner," but it was plainly obvious he was more than that. Price said he badly wanted to tell her she didn't have pretend.

"It was a shame," he said. "The saddest part was that the man's partner had no legal rights over the burial."

The significance of burying Pulse victims at Greenwood is not lost on him. Under Jim Crow, the cemetery had been banned from interring blacks and whites in the same section, a restriction that was only lifted in 1964. If anything, Greenwood is somewhat unusual for a city cemetery in the south because there aren't separate cemeteries for each race, he said.

Greenwood remains relevant partly because of Orlando's changing population, which includes 400,000 Puerto Ricans. Although many white families increasingly ask to have loved ones cremated, Latinos and Haitians continue to prefer burials, Price said.

As DeLeon maneuvered the backhoe, uprooting mounds of dirt and bahia grass, Price described nascent plans to erect a monument to all 49 victims. He considered quieter parts of the cemetery, sections where it's impossible to hear passing motorists, but he chose the land along Anderson Street for its visibility.

"We wanted it to be something that's not hidden," he said. "This is where it needs to be."

Anna Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com. Follow @annamphillips.

In Orlando, the gravedigger's work begins 06/16/16 [Last modified: Thursday, June 16, 2016 10:08pm]
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