OCONTO — Jerry Bickel breaks out a wry smile when he explains his salary at the Oconto Catholic Cemetery. The last five years, he received $4,200 annually.
“That works out to $12 a day if I worked every day,” he said, “but with the friends I made, it was worth it.”
Bickel has retired after 36 years as sexton. His service at the cemetery dates back even longer. Starting in 1945, he began helping his father, Frank Bickel Sr., who served as sexton until his death in 1979.
The Bickel family farm is located next door to the 12-acre cemetery. Jerry notes that farming and cemetery work have been his course for the majority of his life, other than the two years he served in the U.S. Marine Corps after being drafted in 1951. The Bickels have primarily grown corn and soybeans on the farmland. In the past, they had livestock, including cows and pigs.
“Way back in ’46 and ’47, we had 100 pigs. Sometimes the pigs would go through the cemetery and help us,” said Jerry with a laugh.
Frs. Bob Karuhn and Marty Fox hired Jerry as sexton following his father’s death. He said that he has enjoyed using his truck and tools on the job, and emphasizes that he couldn’t have done it alone. His wife, Delores, served as bookkeeper. They have been married for 59 years and have seven children, 11 grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Jerry and Delores are known as “the cemetery people” to many in Oconto.
“The kids used to call it ‘our cemetery,’” said Delores.
Two of their daughters, Virginia Van Vonderen and Julie Sylvester, worked in the cemetery.
“They could do anything,” said Jerry. “They would mow; help me cut up a tree if a tree broke. They would dig the graves.”
“Our girls would always say a rosary as they were digging by hand,” said Delores.
The other Bickel children helped when they were at home. Their son, John, now takes care of Evergreen Cemetery in Oconto. Their second youngest was called to the priesthood. Fr. Tim Bickel is pastor at St. Gabriel Parish in Hubertus in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. Jerry said that Fr. Bickel used to help dig graves, but his main job on the farm was caring for the pigs.
Among the rewards over the years have been “the wonderful relationships with all the undertakers, the monument people and the vault companies,” said Jerry. He is also thankful for the opportunity to work with so many priests, from Msgr. J.J. Looze and Fr. Matthias Alt in the early years to Frs. Karuhn and Fox, who were great resources, to those who have served in Oconto in recent years, including Frs. Dave Ruby, Patrick Beno and Joel Sember. The Bickels, members of Holy Trinity Parish in Oconto, also developed friendships with family members of those who died.
“We always treated our ‘job’ as a ministry and tried to comfort the mourners,” said Jerry. “I’ll miss the many people I met while working there. … When they came to a funeral, they would hug us afterwards.”
Visitors looking to find a grave would often stop by the house. Delores would get out the cemetery book to assist them.
Challenges included winter burials, which required heating the ground.
“They would have to get up at night to keep the fire going because, in those days, funerals were earlier in the morning,” said Delores.
Jerry feels fortunate that the cemetery was only vandalized twice over 70 years.
“People tipped over stones and broke the crosses on the top,” he explained. “Once, they broke the entire stone with a sledge hammer.”
They never restricted flowers or decorations at gravesites.
“Put whatever you want, we are all friends here,” said Jerry.
He added that the biggest change over the years has been the increase in the number of cremations. He also points to the advancement in equipment over the years. He started with a reel lawnmower and ended with a “beautiful zero turn mower.” Jerry takes pride in knowing that he will be the last sexton at Oconto Catholic Cemetery. A president, chairperson and secretary will now handle operations.
“It was a good life,” said Delores.
“It’s only started,” said Jerry.
They hope to be remembered as being friendly to all the people they met.
“My dad always said that it doesn’t cost a penny to smile,” said Delores.
Jerry refers to a line by the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield to jokingly summarize his years as sexton.
“I got no respect,” he said with a laugh, “and I never got a dinner.
“I feel good,” he added. “I thought I would retire from the cemetery in very good shape, and I’m always a farmer and proud of it.”