Gus Cayce - County Grave Digger


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By J. Tom Miles

Digging 1,416 graves over a period of 28 years, an average of almost one each week, and enough to bury nearly half of the present population of Farmington, is the feat accomplished by Gus Cayce, now over 71 years of age, who lives at 216 East Spring street here. Gus hasn't kept an accurate account of the graves he has dug during this time, but a few years ago he stopped writing the names down because there were so many he did not know. It is hardly possible that anyone in this section has equaled the record set by Gus Cayce. For the past few years he has been unable to carry on his work due to extreme age, but his son now digs most of the graves here. Gus has followed his trade in all parts of the County, serving all classes of people, sometimes receiving as much as $25.00 or as little as nothing for digging a grave. Such private lots as the Murphy, Carter and Hopkins plots and all public cemeteries have been familiar scenes for Gus, with his pick and shovel. Weather, says Gus, is no respecter of the grave digger. During the wet season water is a problem, and during the winter frozen ground must be contended with.

It has been about 31 years since Gus prepared his first grave in the K. of P. cemetery. Many have been the experiences which have come under his observation during these 28 years. He has prepared graves for Thos. Lang, Sr., Dubart Long, F. P. Graves and his son Dr. J. B. Graves, "Uncle" Harvey Haile, who died at the age of one hundred, has been the oldest person to be buried by him. Then there have been bodies of babies only a day or two old. Upon one occasion Gus dug a grave fifteen feet wide in which were placed the bodies of six persons, the entire Price family, of near Coffman. He has taken bodies out of the ground after being buried for 35 years so they may be moved to another plot. The remains of I. G. Beal, which were first placed on the lot of the Marbury Homestead, were taken up after a period of 28 years to be removed to the Masonic cemetery. Since the body had been securely placed in a steel vault with a glass top there was little change to be noticed from the day the body had been first buried.

A group of gypsies, while traveling through here some years ago, lost their little girl and Gus prepared the grave in the Parkview Cemetery. A tombstone placed here contains the sculptured form of a child's pair of shoes, one setting in an upright position while the other has been placed as though it had been turned over. Gus says these gypsies come through frequently and upon each occasion they place small articles, including different kinds of glass and shells, upon this grave.

Possibly the most unusual grave that Gus has ever dug was for the burial of a live man. This grave was on the lot now occupied by the Post Office building. It was about eight or nine years ago that the Ritz Theatre advertised that a man would be buried alive and it became the duty of Gus to do the digging. A large crowd gathered for the occasion: the grave was prepared: the live man walked into the wooden coffin: Gus helped to screw the top on; placed the box in the ground and covered it up. After 55 minutes it was uncovered and taken to the Theatre where the screws were removed from the box and the man inside walked out as fresh as when he had first been placed in the ground. Gus made $10.00 out of this new experience.

Gus does not feel that he is very superstitious but digging graves in a lonely cemetery at midnight when all is still "gets a man to thinkin'," and sometimes he hears noises. Upon one occasion he was preparing a grave in the Masonic Cemetery on Sunday morning about 3 o'clock and he saw something white moving back and forth behind two trees. This looked mighty queer to Gus and unable to stand it any longer, he had just laid down his shovel with the intention of finishing the digging later in the day. About this time the object came toward him and it proved to be an old man with long white beard who had come to the cemetery the night before and was intoxicated. He had just begun to move about when Gus saw him.

Source: newspaper clipping dated Sept. 11, 1936. From the Obituary Collection at the Farmington Public Library, St. Francois Co. MO.


Gus Cayce (colored) of Farmington seems to be the chief grave digger of the county according to the statement he recently made to the News. In the past 23 years he states he has dug or supervised the digging of 1,233 graves, an average of over 53 graves each year. He also states that he has exhumed and prepared for shipment to other cemeteries for burial approximately 40 bodies. Cayce was born in Farmington in 1868 and has spent his entire life there. In the sixty years that he has lived he has averaged digging 20 graves each year. It is very interesting to hear Gus tell his experience. He told of exhuming one body that had been buried sixty years.

Published by the LEAD BELT NEWS, Flat River, St. Francois Co. MO, July 27, 1928.