Alternate origin story for "graveyard shift"

Wilson Gray wilson.gray at RCN.COM
Mon Aug 15 05:12:07 UTC 2005

On Aug 13, 2005, at 1:04 PM, James Callan wrote:

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       James Callan <jabeca at DRIZZLE.COM>
> Subject:      Alternate origin story for "graveyard shift"
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> --------
> Last night I went on the Seattle Underworld Tour, the risqué, 21+
> version of Seattle's famous Underground Tour. Among the many anecdotes
> told was the story of how, when the first Seattle Cemetery was moved
> during the 1884 regrade project, bodies were moved in the middle of the
> night to avoid disturbing people or otherwise causing a scandal. And
> that, the guide asserted, is where the term "graveyard shift" came
> from.
> I found one Web reference to the story on King County's history site,
> ( ):
>> Given the conditions under which Shorey was striving to make the
>> removals, it would not be surprising if he had missed a few burials,
>> and so he did. During the final regrading of Denny Hill, in which the
>> land on which the Seattle Cemetery had stood was lowered about 60
>> feet, several bodies were purportedly found, probably Indian graves,
>> as the regraders washed away the hill. Because it would have disturbed
>> people and possibly caused a scandal, it is said that these bodies
>> were removed to some unspecified place during the middle of the night,
>> when supposedly no one would notice. Local legend has it that this
>> incident is the origin of the term "graveyard shift" for work done
>> during the middle of the night.
> I would've been skeptical of this story even if the tour didn't repeat
> the "Thomas Crapper invented the toilet" story. In fact, the first time
> I took the Underground Tour, I had to double-check that the term "skid
> row" originated in Seattle -- and was pleased to discover that that, at
> least, was true.
> As origin stories go, this one for "graveyard shift" doesn't seem
> nearly as popular as the "sitting in the cemetery listening for bells"
> tale. Has anyone else heard it?
>         -- James Callan

FWIW, except for "day shift," the names of the shifts vary. At the Los
Angeles Department of Water and Power, the swing shift is called the
"peak" shift. In the now-defunct U.S. Army Security Agency, the
graveyard shift was rather prosaically known as the "middle" shift.

-Wilson Gray

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