A sexton is a church, congregation, or synagogue officer charged with the maintenance of its buildings and/or the surrounding graveyard. In smaller places of worship, this office is often combined with that of verger. In larger buildings, such as cathedrals, a team of sextons may be employed.
Historically in North America and the United Kingdom the "sexton" was sometimes a minor municipal official responsible for overseeing the town graveyard. In the United Kingdom the position still exists today, related to management of the community's graveyard, and the sexton is usually employed by the town/parish or community council.
Origin of the name
The words "sexton" and "sacristan" both derive from the Medieval Latin word sacristanus meaning "custodian of sacred objects". "Sexton" represents the popular development of the word via the Old French "Segrestein".
Amongst the traditional duties of the sexton in small parishes was the digging of graves—the gravedigger in Hamlet refers to himself as sexton, for example. In modern times, grave digging is usually done by an outside contractor. The general duties of a modern sexton may include (but are not limited to):
- Supervising the maintenance of the churchyard, even if an outside contractor is employed to do the work.
- Maintaining a record of burials within the churchyard, and addressing enquiries about such records.
- Operation and maintenance of mechanical systems, such as refrigerators, boilers, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning units, hot water systems, kitchen equipment, and piping systems (i.e. gas, water, fire protection, and sewer systems).
- Operation and maintenance of electrical and instrument systems, such as a power distribution system, security/communication system, fire alarms, telephone wiring, computers and computer network (LAN and WAN) systems.
- Liaison with routine contract maintenance & supply companies regarding fire and safety, pest control and cleaning, etc.
- Ordering/receiving supplies and equipment.
- Aesthetic appearance, security, and fire protection.
- Logistics for events on church calendar (chairs/tables, lighting, acoustics, audio/video, etc.)
- Emergency response during bad weather, etc.
- Other building and grounds tasks not handled by a contract service and/or church volunteers, such as the replacement of ceiling light bulbs, returning premises to a neat and orderly state following services and events, disposal of rubbish, and running any local errands or trips that are needed by the church.
In a public cemetery, duties tend to include:
- Measuring and marking out grave spaces
- Using mechanical excavators or hand tools to dig graves
- Using timbers and special hydraulic equipment to shore up the sides of graves safely
- Assessing safety and structural integrity of open graves
- Ensuring there is safe access to the graveside - removing anything that could be dangerous to mourners and installing secure platforms around the edge of the grave
- Filling in the grave after the service, taking care not to damage the coffin
- Placing flowers and tributes, being careful not to damage them
- Moving memorials and headstones, inspecting them for damage and making safe any that are dangerous
- Maintaining equipment, such as digging machines, water pumps, hydraulic and timber shoring equipment
- Maintaining the grounds, including grass cutting, hedge trimming, tree works, seasonal bedding planting, shrub maintenance, litter picking and sweeping roads and paths.
- Monitoring for subsidence and putting in preventive measures