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Helping you say goodbye to a loved one

You’ve lost a loved one. That’s where they come in.

Anita NiNi Wells sings at funeral services to help you find hope and direction. Curtis Credle digs the grave to lay them to rest. Hugh Tanchuck makes the monument to let the world know they were here.

Their tools are different: music, a shovel and stone. But their goal is the same: to help you say goodbye.

'A funeral is for the audience'

Anita NiNi Wells has been singing at funerals since she was a kid — she thinks she's performed at hundreds of them. When she was hospitalized in 2013 for a noncancerous cyst, she thought about her own ending.

“I was giving up,” said Wells, 47. “Feeling like ‘I’m in so much pain, I don’t want to live.’ ”

She underwent several surgeries and was hospitalized for nearly two months. She says her faith helped her through her recovery.

“Thank God for a lot of my friends who are ministers or just Christian and they came to the hospital, they prayed for me. By the time that prayer took place, I was a changed person. Like, ‘Honestly God, I do think I want to go on a little longer, I was just talking crazy — so thank you for bringing me back.’ ”

Before her hospitalizations, Wells was pursuing a music career and says she was ignoring a calling to become a Baptist minister. After she got out of the hospital, she took the steps to do just that. 

Wells has been able to merge her spiritual path with her passion for music. Every Sunday she sings at Church-in-the-Garden — a Baptist church in Garden City. She also offers her services at Ebenezer House of Deliverance in her native Brooklyn.

'Sending them off in style'

When Wells is asked to sing at a funeral, she meets with the family to find out what kind of music they want to represent their loved one. As a minister, she often delivers eulogies, as well.

Anita NiNi Wells rehearsing with the Church-in-the-Garden choir
The pews of Church-in-the-Garden in Garden City on
Pianist Bernard Corbett accompanies the Church-in-the-Garden choir during

Clockwise from left: Anita NiNi Wells rehearsing with the Church-in-the-Garden choir in Garden City on Dec. 1, 2019; pianist Bernard Corbett accompanies the Church-in-the-Garden choir during rehearsal in Garden City on Dec. 1, 2019; the pews of Church-in-the-Garden in Garden City on Dec. 1, 2019. (Photo credit: Newsday/Shelby Knowles)

“Really, a funeral is for the audience,” Wells said. “People always think it’s for the last time we’re going to see them on earth and things like that. But it’s for those that are lost, that need to find hope and direction.”

She added it’s not about picking the songs that are going to make people cry, but finding music that contains a message of hope. In Baptist tradition, Wells says the final song at a funeral is upbeat, often with shouting, foot-stomping and clapping.

“We believe in homegoing,” she said. “Sending them off in style … because we know where they’re going. They have an expected ‘in.’ So we’re going out uplifting; we don’t want to be sad and solemn.”

Wells says music can be essential while coping with loss. She feels it’s only after a funeral takes place that mourners can truly reflect on their emotions and memories. The music can fill a void.

“At the service, people are watching you,” she said. “So you’re grieving and you have your moment, but you also have to process everything that has just happened. It’s still some kind of numbness there.

“I think when people leave, they’re looking for something to maintain. To continue that spiritual upliftment. It’s great that if they heard the song at the funeral, they can go home and YouTube it, Spotify, all these different ways you can download and listen to music.”

Feet stomping, tambourine slapping

On a recent Sunday morning at Church-in-the-Garden, Wells rehearsed before the worship service with her “sisters and brothers.” The church’s five-person choir piled into a small rehearsal room with some folding chairs and a piano in the corner. About 20 minutes before the choir stepped onto the pulpit, the room was filled with the sounds of feet stomping and the beat of a tambourine, as a bag of Ricola was passed around.

Wells sat up straight as she looked over handwritten notes in the margins of her music. She would be singing a duet that morning, “You Know My Name,” with Justin Mensah, the youngest member of the choir. As she rehearsed, her voice was sweet but strong; she hit high notes with ease and low notes with power.

“Music is a big part of the service because people can feel love and they can feel healing,” she said. “Sometimes people come in with all kinds of issues that we are all not aware of, except in the spirit God reveals it to us. So they come to be uplifted; they’re looking for something.”

During the service, Wells belted out an upbeat tune with a smile from ear to ear, “Victory is Mine.” She clapped and swayed along with her choir. On most days, she heads back to Brooklyn afterward, where she leads members of another congregation on their spiritual journey at Ebenezer House of Deliverance.

Wells is happy that she finally accepted her calling.

“I kept running but I finally said, ‘OK God, I get it.’ Because the way I felt, like I was unto death, honestly. Unto death. And He really resurrected my life.”

'The dead can't hurt you'

The "no one in attendance" services are the hardest part. Sometimes it’s too sad for Curtis Credle to bear.

Calverton National Cemetery holds these monthly gatherings (abbreviated as NOA) to honor veterans who had no one present at their funerals. The service takes place at a chapel, with names read and other veterans and cemetery employees there to pay respects.

“It’s just so sad that these 14 or 15 people each month, no one attended,” Credle said. “You just don't want to go out like that.”

Credle, 49, is a cemetery caretaker at Calverton. He moved to Bay Shore from Washington, North Carolina, and has been digging and maintaining graves for the past two and a half years. He never pictured himself in this line of work.

“It was a little bit different, because I never did it before,” he said. “But there's nothing to worry about. The dead can't hurt you.”

'Check, check and re-check'

Calverton is a cemetery for veterans of all religions. It opened in 1978 and there are approximately 300,000 graves. According to Michael Rohrbach, assistant director at U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 70 percent of the cemetery’s staff are veterans.

This includes Credle, who served in the Army for 11 years, including three years in the Army Reserve. Every morning he wakes up at 6 a.m. to prepare for the day.

The cemetery caretakers gather for their morning meeting at 8 a.m., where they receive assignments. They could be sent to work on the line — which means interments and digging using heavy machinery — or backchecking, which is when caretakers complete an interment. This means raking out air pockets that gathered in the dirt, covering it in topsoil, and removing flowers that any animals had found.

Cemetery caretakers working in the crypt section of
Calverton National Cemetery in Wading River on Nov.
Curtis Credle, a cemetery caretaker, at Calverton National

Clockwise from left: cemetery caretakers working in the crypt section of Calverton National Cemetery in Wading River on Nov. 19, 2019; Curtis Credle at Calverton National Cemetery in Wading River on Nov. 19, 2019; Calverton National Cemetery in Wading River on Nov. 19, 2019. (Photo credit: Newsday/Shelby Knowles)

“We have turkeys, deer, groundhogs,” Credle said. “We’ve seen rabbits out here."

Credle says you can never look over your work too many times: “Check, check and re-check.”

“First-time interments when we're digging on the line, we've got a map and we've got to make sure we're digging in the right location,” he said. “So say we’ve got 10 graves on the sheet, we've got to go find the grave we’re digging and locate on the map and make sure we're digging in the right spot. 

“From there, we'll count the 10 graves and the last grave, we look on the map and make sure that we've got the last spot.”

The caretakers check one more time and set up the backhoe to start digging. Whatever dirt the backhoe didn’t get, Credle shovels out. Throughout this process he’s usually listening to church music or R&B in his headphones at a low volume. One of his favorite artists is Mary J. Blige.

“It relaxes me and puts me somewhere else,” he said. “I just get in my own element when I'm working and it just clears your mind from what's going on.”

Three feet between, seven feet across

Credle says the job can be mentally draining. Sometimes he sees the same person coming to the cemetery several days in a row to visit a grave. “You never know what's going through their minds or how long did they grieve for and you just see all this and you just feel it.”

There are challenges of nature, as well: snow, rain, extreme heat.

On a recent weekday this winter, gusts of bitter wind pushed Credle as he made his way through rows upon rows of headstones. The graves line the land with precision: three feet between each headstone side by side, seven feet going across to the next row.

Without a tree in sight, the air is harsher in this particular section of 1,045 acres. But Credle, wearing khaki overalls over a hoodie, seemed unbothered. 

“When there's rain outside, we can't see. When it's snowing, the ground is frozen. We have to jackhammer the ground before we can even start digging because the ground is so hard. So it's a lot of adverse conditions that people don't even know about that we have to deal with before we even can dig.”

He can take the heat, though. “I'm from North Carolina so I'm used to 80, 90 degrees,” Credle said with a smile.

Helping the regulars

What makes it all worth it, Credle says, are the people he meets. He once spent the day helping an elderly woman locate two graves. She asked him to take her photo at both of them. “That just really touched me,” Credle said. “That melted my heart.”

There are also regulars who look for Credle each time they come to Calverton to visit a loved one.

“There's one guy that I helped and he was real grateful, and we exchanged phone numbers,” Credle said. “Every year he'll come out and say, ‘Curtis, are you working? I need you to help me, take me to that grave.’ I would meet him at the bathroom and take him out to the spot, and then we'll talk.”

Every time Credle digs, he feels other people’s pain. He approaches each grave as if he is preparing it for his own family.

And when he clocks out every day, he feels honored.

“You have to have pride to work here,” he said. “This is a high-visibility area, so you've got to want to be in the spotlight and shine because a lot of people are watching you, whether you know it or not.”

He lets the world know you were here

Hugh Tanchuck grew up going to cemeteries with his father. He remembers weaving in and out of rows of headstones, fixating on the ages of the deceased. “Oh, they were 50,” he would think to himself. “They were so old.”

“Now I'm 58 years old and I’m looking at all these stones going, ‘Hey, I'm older than that person,’ ” Tanchuck said. “When you’re young, life is forever. As you get older, you're seeing that it’s not forever.”

Tanchuck runs North Shore Monuments in Glen Head, which his grandfather started in the early 1900s and passed down through the generations.

Tanchuck’s great-grandfather, Alden, was a stone mason in Ukraine. Alden’s son Harry immigrated to the United States and started a masonry business in the Bronx. And Harry’s son — Tanchuck’s father, Martin — expanded the company to Long Island. North Shore Monuments engraves and restores headstones and also specializes in bronze and stone services.

Tanchuck didn’t think he would wind up in the monument business.

“[My dad] would always teach me this and I’d say, ‘I'm never gonna do this,’ ” Tanchuck recalled. “He’d say, ‘Well, it's something you could always fall back on.’ ”

“30-some-odd years later, I'm still here.”

‘The monument guy’

Tanchuck runs the operations at North Shore Monuments with his wife, Maggie. He taught his five employees how to engrave, carve and shape stone. Tanchuck calls himself a “community monument dealer." He often provides for friends, relatives and neighbors.

“It's always strange being the monument guy and going to someone you know’s funeral,” Tanchuck said. “I have actually been to a funeral of a friend and they'll be like, ‘Of course we were going to get the monument with you.’ And I'm like, well, I just came here to pay respects.”

Tanchuck says he’s personally crafted “probably over 10,000” headstones. His business has created monuments for various religions, and engraved stones in languages such as Farsi, Spanish and Korean.

“Every group has their own set of rules for what they like to see and what their image of a monument is,” Tanchuck said.

He’s currently working with a Greek family: “A lot of the monuments in Greece are like a box with see-through glass doors, and you can see in there and they'll have some mementos of their person.”

Tanchuck added that he’s working with a Chinese family and a “feng shui” expert on a monument now, as well, and certain aspects of this monument must be very precise, like the angle of the base and the color.

The final step

Tanchuck has seen the monument industry change through the years, particularly with cemeteries becoming more “regulated.” 

“I think you're going to see less and less family-run businesses like this because of the cost of regulation and the cost of insurance,” he said. “There's very few people running the industry, so that concerns me. Funeral homes are now selling monuments directly to the customer.” Plots of land are also getting smaller, he says, which means the size of the stones shrink, while costs of just about everything keep going up.

Tanchuck isn’t sure what the future holds for his business. His daughter is studying physics — “I don’t know if that’s gonna work with this.” And his son has an engineering degree. Tanchuck thinks he’ll “follow his own path” but he adds, just as his father told him, the family business is something he could always fall back on.

But it’s more than just a business — Tanchuck believes he plays an important role in the grieving process. He says he makes sure to follow “a bit of a script” when he meets someone who’s lost a loved one. He always asks questions about the size, color and finish of a stone, but also listens and works to understand what the family wants.

He also considers himself the “final step” in saying goodbye to a loved one, since people usually come to him after making funeral arrangements.

“They've come to some kind of grips with it, and then we make the monument, and that's the last thing they could do for the person," he said.

When Tanchuck’s father Martin died in 1998, neither he nor his stepmother wanted to take that final step of creating a monument. It took her “a year to the date” of his passing to come into Tanchuck’s shop and start making plans. It took him another year to begin working on the headstone.

“No one else was going to do my father's monument but me,” he said. “None of my workers, nobody. And it took me almost a year because I just didn't want to do it. It’s still hard to go see that.”

They picked a shady spot in Melville Cemetery at the base of a slender dogwood tree. A branch of flowers is engraved across the top of the stone.

“When I was making his monument, I was thinking of all the things that make my father unique. He was a simple man — he liked John Wayne, he was a bit of a tough guy, he was one of those guys who just wanted to see you succeed. So I was thinking of all these things I should put on the monument, and then when it got down to it, we just kept it simple. People get caught up and want to get all of their emotions out at that moment, but I think it’s better to keep it simple.”

Until death do us part

There’s another headstone Tanchuck wanted to do himself: his own. There are monuments displayed throughout his lobby of all shapes, sizes and finishes. Tucked under a large American flag is one with the name “Tanchuck” peeking out.

His wife’s ashes will go inside of the monument, enclosed by a bronze door. He will go in the ground adjacent to it. It’s hand carved, tall and made of granite.

“Everyone has a different view on why they get a monument,” he said. “I feel like it's out of respect; that someone has been on this planet. We all view it differently. I have people who will go to that grave site every single day for years. 

“But some people are cemetery people, some people are not.”

Stories by Rachel Weiss

Photos and video by Shelby Knowles

Produced by Anahita Pardiwalla and Joe Diglio

Design by Matthew Cassella

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