NC military veteran known for digging more than 11,000 graves passes away

North Carolina news

GASTON COUNTY, N.C. (FOX 46 CHARLOTTE) – A local man who was known for digging more than 11,000 graves has passed away.

He’s being remembered as a devoted family man, a military vet and a local folk hero, and those who knew him say he will never be forgotten.

For the family of James Hopes Phillips, Wednesday was both somber and a celebration of life.

“He was the most amazing, selfless man that anyone could know,” his granddaughter Tiffany told FOX 46.

James was a gravedigger.

“He’s done over 11,000 graves,” his daughter Sandy said.

He was so highly regarded he had stories written about him in the local paper and he dug every single one of those graves by hand.

“He didn’t use machinery like that. He literally had a shovel, a spade — which he called a sharpshooter — and a wheelbarrow,” Sandy said.

James’ daughter and granddaughter say everyone who knew him always talked about the great pride he took in his work.

“My dad was always precise. Everything was neat. Everything was done correctly,” Sandy said.

According to his granddaughter, all of the graves he dug were exactly eight feet long, three feet wide and four and a half feet deep. They say he knew that every grave he dug was important, as it would be the final resting place for a life that was special.

“He has a ledger. He has a ledger of every single person. He knows where every single plot is. Every single body,” Sandy said.

Being a gravedigger was actually James’ side job. He worked full-time at Still Mills until it closed. He would dig the graves before work, getting up at 5:30 a.m. to get the job done. He would also dig after work and on the weekends.

“He never neglected his family either,” granddaughter Tiffany said. “Everybody had what they needed and more.”

Even on James’ last days, it was never about him.

“The whole time he was in the hospital, the first thing he did was always ask, ‘How are the kids, how are you?’” Tiffany said.

Family wanted everybody to know what they call the James ‘Hope-isms’, like “I ain’t never felt better and had less,” and “keep your eye on the sparrow.”

And what would a man who dug more than 11,000 graves in his life want for his final resting place?

“He always talked about the Monticello vault that he’d have. The best of the best,” Tiffany said.

James died from pneumonia. He was 87 years old.

“He was an amazing man. He really was,” his daughter said.

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