Caring for the Oak Bluffs cemetery, a family affair

Gail Landers kept working right through a retirement party held by her colleagues. There was too much to do to get ready for the 4th of July, she explained. — Photo by Gwyn McAllister

Gail Landers, who has been in charge of maintaining the Oak Bluffs Cemetery for the past 43 years, had to be practically dragged off her riding mower and across the street to the Town Hall for her retirement party last Wednesday morning. Not that she wasn’t looking forward to her retirement, or that she wasn’t up for the party that also honored Nathalie “Nat” Woodruff’s 12 years of service as administrative assistant for the board of health office, it was just an inconvenient time for Ms. Landers.

“Do you know how much work there is to do on the 4th of July weekend?” Ms. Landers answered good-naturedly when asked why she was late for her own party. None of the two dozen party attendees — town hall employees, cemetery board members, and selectmen — was the least bit surprised by her response.

Ms. Landers has proven herself incredibly devoted to keeping the 15-acre cemetery a tidy and scenic part of the town for more than four decades. In fact, she literally grew up in the job, which her father, Edwin Irwin Landers, held for 20 years. Ms. Lander started helping her father in his landscaping/gardening business when she was seven years old. She was joined in the family business at one time or another by all six of her siblings and her mother.

Although she received help during the busier months from Parks and Highway Department workers, Ms. Landers was essentially a staff of one. She lives just a stone’s throw from the cemetery, so she was able to keep a close watch on the property that she maintained for so many years. In the winter, when groundskeeping duties were lighter, Ms. Landers worked alongside her sister June Ferreira at the Oak Bluffs Landfill.

Ms. Landers is a second generation Islander. Now that she is retired, Ms. Landers will be able to spend more time taking care of 89-year-old father, who now lives with her. Three of her four sisters live on the Vineyard. Her mother and two brothers are deceased. They, along with a number of Ms. Landers relatives on both sides, are buried in the Oak Bluffs cemetery.

With an easy laugh, Ms. Landers described the unwitting victim of one of her brother’s practical jokes, “My brothers used to dig the graves. One night my brother Steven was digging a grave late at night. A guy coming from the P-A (Portuguese-American) Club was walking by, and Steven reached out and grabbed him. I think he sobered up pretty fast. He never came through the cemetery again.”

Ms. Landers is a quiet and modest woman who has earned the admiration and respect of her fellow town employees by her work ethic and commitment. “Gail is a hard-working person. She’s very devoted to that job,” cemetery commissioner Linda Wilson said. “In the spring she plants geraniums on the graves of all the veterans.”

Long ago, Ms. Landers fixed up the cemetery office, a small three-room building in the heart of the property, to be a comfortable “home away from home.” She furnished it with a number of items that she salvaged from the landfill, including a leather chair, a couple of decorative rugs, and several paintings. Along the front she planted hydrangeas. It’s cozy and attractive.

Inside the office she displayed a very detailed hand-drawn map that she made years ago, along with a card index system housed in a fishing tackle box.

“It’s just as good as a computer,” Ms. Wilson said. “She holds much of the memory of that institution in her head. She knows things that will be lost when she’s gone.”

Ms. Landers will no doubt be keeping an eye on the plot of land that she tended for over 40 years, since it practically borders her property. “I will go over there every once in a while just to make sure my relatives’ graves are getting cut,” she said. “If not, I’ll cut them myself.” No doubt she will.