RIDGEWOOD — After 45 years overseeing the 18,600 souls of Valleau Cemetery, Superintendent Guy Kostka is sure of one thing: there is no such thing as a ghost.
With his retirement looming at the end of the month, Kostka, 63, said he’s seen the living do scarier things in the cemetery than any of its permanent residents: turning over 150 headstones in one case, using one of its grassy knolls to practice golf swings into another.
He’s been there to see it all. Kostka has also lived at the 163-year-old burial ground on East Glen Avenue during his decades as caretaker, raising three daughters there.
“The job is pretty much the same, but I’m 45 years older,” Kostka said, shrugging a sore shoulder.
His girls disagree on the matter of ghosts at the graveyard. But more on that later.
Kostka was honored this month at a retirement reception by Old Paramus Reformed Church, which owns the 22-acre cemetery. He and his wife Jane plan to move to Tuckerton on the Jersey Shore.
Sydney Robertson, president of the church’s cemetery board, credited Kostka as “the one who keeps the operation running smoothly.”
“He’s the one that keeps the backhoe running, the expert welder,” Robertson said. “He’s known to everybody in the funeral business. He He the one who pretty much makes sure it all comes together. He will be difficult to replace.”
The Rev. Robert Miller praised Kostka for his “ministry at a family’s most difficult time,” overseeing the coordination of burial options that fall increasingly on the caretaker’s shoulders.
“It used to be families went to a funeral home to make burial decisions,” Kostka said. “Now, they’re coming right to us: what kind of burial, what kind of ceremony?”
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The congregation was founded in 1725 and buried its dead around the church until Magdalena Valleau donated 23 acres for a cemetery in 1750. Incorporated in 1859, the non-sectarian burial ground’s occupants include former congresswoman Marge Roukema, philanthropist David Bolger and Sgt. Charles Hosking Jr., a Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient.
Nine of Ridgewood’s 12 victims from Sept. 11 are buried in a row on the grounds.
Kostka, who grew up in Paterson, began working in the cemetery in January 1977. He took over the superintendent’s job from Charlie Post five years later at age 23. He moved into the caretaker house with Jane and daughters Jill, Barbara and Amy.
“It was the most amazing childhood,” said middle daughter Barbara Kostka DiPietro. “We learned to ride our bikes in the cemetery, we learned to drive in the cemetery. It was like a huge backyard.”
‘Everyone wants to be buried under a tree’
Kostka has maintained the grounds with the help of two or three assistants. There was no shortage of work: mowing, weed whacking, digging gravesites, installing cement vaults, filling in graves after funeral services, overseeing the installation of headstones, maintaining machines.
“We used to roll the vaults into place over logs,” I remembered. “They weigh a ton so it was rough work.”
His activities were recorded in a series of “day book” ledgers that Kostka preferred to computerized data. The books include visits from families seeking grave sites for present or future use.
“Everyone wants to be buried under a tree,” he said. “They look at all this open space and say ‘this is great.’ The problem is the root systems of these large trees are too big to dig.”
The biggest change Kostka has seen over his time is the switch from coffin burials to cremations, which he estimates have grown from a third to about half the business.
“There’s more putting two people in one plot,” he said. “They might not even bury the cremains of the first spouse until the second spouse dies, and bury them together,”
The cemetery is home to graves for 950 veterans, so Kostka has had to develop a map and labeling system to direct volunteers in the massive annual effort of placing flags for Memorial Day.
The property is largely vandal-free, Kostka said, but it faced challenges when the village shut down public parks at the height of the COVID pandemic Residents availed themselves of Valleau’s park-like setting until cemetery staff posted signs limiting visits to plot owners and their families.
Patrolling for prowlers
DiPietro, Kostka’s daughter, said that because the cemetery was also her home, it was “never creepy.”
She recalls patrolling the cemetery for intruders with her father the day before Halloween – also known as Cabbage Night or Mischief Night. It was the “coolest job in the world” growing up, even if they never found any prowlers, she remembered.
Neither Barbara nor sister Amy Kostka share their father’s disbelief in the presence of “spirits.”
One night after the former superintendent Charlie Post had died, “we were in the living room and Charlie suddenly appeared between my parents sitting in their chairs,” Barbara recalled. “They couldn’t see him but I could.”
Amy remembers walking the grounds at night with friends, only to have a sudden feeling she needed to stop and look down. She found an old skeleton key once she used to open the mausoleum doors. No one knew where it came from.
Both daughters mentioned a strange feeling while ascending the cellar stairs at the caretaker’s house.
“There’s no problem going down, doing laundry,” Amy said. “But going up, you feel like you’re being pushed and have to run up as fast as possible. The stair rug is worn out from us running up the stairs.”
Kostka gave a quick shake of the head to those visions.
“I’ve made up a ghost. His name is George,” he said. “I blame anything we can’t explain on him.”
Marsha Stoltz is a local reporter for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.