Gravedigging 101

Cemeteries, Death, Graves, taphophile

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This week on ‘Burials and Beyond’, how to dispose of a body.

As much as I’d delight in upholding such a click-bait-y introduction, clarification is – sadly – imminent. Unless you’re inclined to murder and subsequent concealment, any deceased individual will pass through a chain of death professionals before they meet their final resting place. In this journey from death to internment and decay, we can be inclined to consider only hospital staff and funeral directors as sole ‘handlers’. However, they are integral pieces in the wider death jigsaw puzzle. I’d like to give a quick overview of a much-overlooked piece in the death and burial chain, that of the gravedigger.

As a Brit, I live in a country of ever-increasing cremation. In 1960, cremation to burial rates were 34.70%, whereas in 2015, they had risen dramatically to 75.44%.  Understandably, there are cultural and religious concerns to take into account in any burial practise, but overall, cremation is firmly the preferred method of ‘burial’ for citizens of the United Kingdom.

For those of us who choose to have our deceased buried, whether for reasons of religion or tradition, our thoughts often only extend as far as the funeral director, and not beyond. Subsequently, many consider the journey of our dead less and less. We buy a package, perhaps view the body, attend the service and return home. However, should you choose to have your deceased buried, gravediggers are an integral piece of the journey we frequently overlook. To help with my post, Dan, a very patient former gravedigger, agreed to answer my barrage of questions.

We know gravediggers exist, but our mental images of the profession are often warped by Victorian grotesques, or folk-take depictions of hunched sextons, busying themselves in remote churchyards. As delightfully gothic as these images may be, they are far from the contemporary truth. Should you live in a city, you can be sure there is a team of full-time, fully trained gravediggers waiting to bury your dead.

Digging a grave is far more complex than ‘dig a hole, chuck Nanna in, fill it up, pub, golden.’ Funeral Directors are frequently seen as the main ‘body burier’, but in reality, they are far more of a middle-man, providing guidance and comfort. So, how does a gravedigger go about burying your corpse?

Firstly, there will be an allocated plot within the cemetery – this may be a pre-purchased plot in prime position (with a prime price tag), or a regular plot assigned by the cemetery. Once the gravedigger has seen the plot, they’ll be able to estimate the time needed to dig the hole. Typically, there is nothing simple or constant about digging a hole. The gravedigger will know the ground; soft clay will take less time than very rocky earth etc. Believe it or not, some graves may take half a day to dig by hand, whereas another plot 200 metres away may take three day’s solid work with a mechanical digger and hydraulic hammer.

So, with the plot known, you…still can’t begin digging. Before shovel meets earth, the gravedigger needs to know the exact size and shape of the coffin (coffins taking precedence over caskets in the UK) as such a wide variety of styles require a wide variety of holes. If the details passed on from the funeral director are incorrect or dramatically change, the gravedigger has no choice but to quickly take a shovel to the graveside and re-size the hole in front of the grieving funeral party themselves. As a very tolerant gravedigger recounted ‘a beetroot complexion and trying not to fall into a grave while trying to jam in a coffin is not a good look.’

Having painfully foregone all temptations to make poor jokes as to the importance of size, now we must consider the equal importance of depth. If a grave is for one person, the gravedigger will typically dig to a depth of 4 ft. Most commonly, graves are dug for two internments, which will be around 6 to 6.5 ft deep. As my patient gravedigger recalls ‘there is nothing more annoying than digging out a rock hard grave for two people, only to be told on the day it was only for one.’

Similarly, multiple internments or family plots have their perils ‘If you get a grave for four people, you’ve got to get your miners hat on and take the caged canary with you! Being twelve foot down in a narrow grave is really very scary, and a ladder is a must!’ 

In terms of practicality, before the coffin enters the ground the amount of earth leaving and returning to the hole must be considered – if none was removed from the pile of earth, there will be a large mound left once the grave is filled in. If too much is taken, you’ve got a trough-shaped problem on your hands.

While digging, all graves are supported by wooden boards to try to prevent the earth falling in on the gravedigger themselves, but sometimes a collapse is imminent (see picture). Normally, such a collapse is little more than an irritant as the gravedigger may be free from harm, but the entire collapse must be re-structured and made safe before digging can continue.

Another perpetual pain is that of water intrusion. If a grave reaches a natural spring and fills with water, or if there is a particularly heavy downpour, the grave can fill with water… fast. So, how to solve such a problem with the funeral party gnashing at your heels.

Gravedigger Dan says ‘…you keep a pump running right up until the hearse pulls up, chuck a bag of dry leaves or straw down in the grave and whisper in the director’s ear “hurry the fuck up!”…’.

He continues, ‘I have been standing there and watched a coffin seem to be rising from the grave. Again, you can’t help but turn beetroot-faced when people are looking at you in horror…’

Similarly, gravediggers are no strangers to workplace mishaps. The webs (the straps used to lower a coffin) may snap, should they be in poor condition (a rare, but embarrassing hazard), and the coffin may tumble into the hole before the funeral party. Should the webs snap from a great height, there’s a good chance the lid will pop off too, unveiling Nanna’s wizened face to the world. Further to this, it is a rare, but not unseen site to see one of the funeral party fall in to the grave and break a bone or two of their own.

Depending on cultural and personal demonstrations of grief, wilful flinging of oneself into the grave is slightly more common than such an unintended tumble.

Through talking to Dan, he particularly emphasised that the greatest hindrance in the smooth burial of the deceased was the carelessness of other visitors to the cemetery. He has seen impatient people beeping their car horns at hearses as they both slowly enter the cemetery gates and others loudly cleaning and tending graves beside an ongoing service. He has seen cars driven into headstones and has had a careers-worth of abuse thrown his way from grieving families.

So, the coffin is in, the funeral party has gone, time to bury the dead. This is done by hand and is usually straight forwards… providing no rubble is being used, which may smash through the coffin when thrown in. Then back-filling picks up at double-speed to hide the exposed deceased!

Once the grave is filled in, with a little mound on top to accommodate the earth sinking (when everything settles, this should give the grave a level ground), the gravediggers then arrange the flowers that had been put to one side, remove any sign of their presence and leave at last.

Finally, cultural differences. Most cemeteries will be aware of different burial and funeral traditions and will subsequently accommodate or have measures in place for such rituals. Some cultures like to back-fill the grave themselves (which is a nice little break for the gravediggers!), others enjoy a graveside picnic and others may require water beside the grave so they can wash their own feet and the deceased themselves.

Gravediggers may be a rather ‘unseen’ profession, but their importance cannot be over-stated. It also cannot be over-stated how much crap they must withstand from us, the grieving public, So, next time you’re in need of their services, why not tip them? Or simply say a few words of thanks. Chances are, we’ll all need their services eventually!

 

 

Further Reading:

http://www.cremation.org.uk/constitution-and-annual-reports

 

 

 

 

 

 

Warstone Lane – Birmingham’s Hidden Catacombs

Catacombs, Cemeteries, Death, Graves, taphophile

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When searching for cemeteries and memorials, ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Birmingham city centre’ aren’t the most obvious bedfellows. Take the time to stroll into the jewellery quarter and you’ll find a little death-y treat, slap bang in the middle of all your diamond shopping needs.

Indeed, alongside Lenny Henry, Industrialisation and Black Sabbath, Birmingham can boast of bearing catacombs. Small, but beautifully formed. Don’t get your hopes up by expecting some labyrinthine, beautifully preserved affair, complete with tour guides and postcards at the gift shop. Birmingham’s catacombs are small, blocked up, shielded from view and not for those of clumsy disposition. Or those of us with easily-triggered vertigo! Nonetheless, they’re well worth a visit if you find yourself in the black country.

Warstone Lane Cemetery (also known as Brookfields, C of E or Mint Cemetery) was established in 1848 by a private company to cope with the overcrowding of cemeteries that was commonplace throughout much of the 18th and early 19th centuries.  It was initially intended as a burial ground for Anglicans, but, as with most city burial grounds, this was not strictly enforced as time progressed. The last internments were made in 1982, meaning that little is done to the cemetery in terms of upkeep and preservation; that is not to say the place is going to rack and ruin, but it is evident how few graves are regularly visited by relatives. However, during our brief walk around the grounds, we saw a number of flat topped tombs used as informal dining tables for workers on their lunchbreak. It was nice to see engagement and an element of non-destructive activity within the cemetery ; the workers’ setups seemed rather ingenious and not at all disrespectful. Warstone Cemetery, clearly has changing usages and is ingrained into the fabric of the surrounding area.

A short internet search will furnish you with a list of notable burials, such as – Harry Gem (a 19th century sportsman with excellent sideburns), Clement Ingelby (Shakespearian Scholar – sideburn status, unknown) and John Postgate (Surgeon and food safety campaigner. Fluffy sideburns.)  In order to stay true to my ‘casual’ writing style, (and as my trip was unplanned), I sought out none of these. You’re welcome.

However, it takes little more than a short wander around the cemetery to find a number of interesting tombs, memorials and carvings that would keep the casual visitor interested for hours.

Personal favourites of mine included:-

 

 

  • The Tomb of William Hipkins, his wife Lavinia and sister Bertha. William himself was lost in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the stone reading ‘the sea shall give up its dead.’

Hipkins had been a successful engineer and the main initiator of the formation of the University of Birmingham’s Business School.

 

  • The traditional headstone of Mary Ann Broore (technically a lawn grave, but before such sections existed). While I know little of her life, her headstone contains a beautiful array of carved flowers, wheat, ferns and ivy.

 

  • The variety of veiled urns and headstones. There are a number of heavily veiled headstones (traditionally, a Victorian shorthand for displaying grief), predominantly on family plots containing heart-breaking numbers of young children. While deeply sad, they are towering, beautiful monuments to a very personal tragedy experienced by so many.

 

The upper section of the cemetery is filled with simplistic chest tombs, hence the propensity for passing workers to utilise their makeshift picnic spots. Several of the larger examples are family vaults, most with short histories recorded on the side.

In-between pockets of tombs and vaults, there are a number of beautifully sculpted urns, obelisks and a snaking line of ledgers above the catacomb recess, commemorating civilians who died during the war. There are broken columns galore and a lot of granite. So mind your step if its wet when you visit!

While headstones and tombs are the bread and butter of a taphophile’s day out, I found some of the most interesting features in Warstone Cemetery to be of relatively ‘natural’ formation. To reiterate; Warstone, although no longer a working cemetery, is not abandoned, but has suffered from neglect over the years. The first feature to capture my interest resembled rows and rows of uneven, fresh graves.

As I entered the cemetery, I was met with rows of tilted headstones, each looming over a deep trough of dead leaves. These brown recesses gave the contradictory appearance of being freshly dug, but, due to the weathered headstones, simultaneously old and abandoned. These jaunty rows appeared to be more noticeable in the upper, and subsequently older part of the cemetery. These graves that have not been backfilled since the initial coffin collapse (often hundreds of years prior) – leading to an interesting topography of deep ditches, particularly on the side of the cemetery closest to the station.

Naturally, the key attraction at Warstone Cemetery is its tiered catacombs. These were initially constructed as a means of absorbing the site’s existing sandpit into the environs. (Warstone and Key Hill Cemetery were built on hillsides that had been quarried for sand, later used in the metal casting process.)

While this added a few extra family vaults – creating a three-storey cemetery of sorts – it cannot be deemed to be a space-saving construction. However, is has been recorded that the unpleasant vapours exuding from said catacombs resulted in the instigation of the Birmingham Cemeteries Act, meaning that all coffins that were not directly interred should be sealed with pitch or lead.

Sadly, the catacombs themselves are no longer directly accessible to the public; you can stroll along the paths, read the inscriptions, but the tombs themselves are now fully sealed.  I am to understand they’d previously been open to the public, but have found no photographic or first hand evidence of this. Nonetheless, many of the entrances are now an attractive shade of concrete.

Upon approaching the catacombs, there is a circular plot, surrounding a central grouping of beech and pine trees. The burials within it are all pleasant enough, as are the ones flanking either side of the entrance and beside the ominously buttressed wall. There are easily accessible stairs to the side of the catacombs, so access is easy enough, HOWEVER, if you plan on visiting, there are no safety precautions once the stairs have been ascended. The structure is as it always was, which is utterly refreshing in today’s cemetery environments where headstones are regularly laid flat at the slightest sniff of a slant.  The catacombs are shown as they were intended to be; not to overstate it, but as a certain amphitheatre of death. Conversely, a stone surface, 9 feet up high, thick with moss, isn’t health and safety’s best friend. There is no railing on the top level, meaning that one wrong step close to the edge could result in your own internment if you’re not careful. So, enjoy the view, keep your eyes open and don’t be an idiot.

 

At the top of the catacombs sits the tomb of businessman John Baskervillle. While his name lends itself to the famous typeface, the story of his death, or rather the treatment of his corpse, is far more interesting. I’ll try to provide a short summary, however I urge you to follow the further reading links at the bottom of the post. When John Baskerville died in 1775, he was a very successful and wealthy man, but also a confirmed atheist. In his will, he provided strict instructions as to the treatment of his body. Baskerville was not only buried upright, but in an air-tight lead-lined coffin. Initially, these wishes were carried out and old Baskerville was interred in a small mausoleum in the grounds of his house Easy Hill, where he rested for many years. However, in 1821, workmen digging for gravel disinterred Baskerville’s coffin, where is subsequently laid unclaimed by relatives. As Baskerville was unwanted and an outspoken atheist, no cemetery would inter him and his decayed body created somewhat of a quandary. For several years, it rested in the warehouse of Thomas Gibson, the man whose business stood in the place of the old Baskerville House. Being an entrepreneurial sort, Gibson would occasionally open Baskerville’s coffin to curious visitors at the cost of 6d a peek. Oweing to Baskervilles method of burial, he was remarkably well preserved. A visitor, Thomas Underwood, sketched Baskerville’s body in August 1829 and recorded that –

his body was, after forty-six years underground, in a singular state of preservation. It was wrapped in a white linen shroud with a branch of laurel, faded but firm in texture. The skin on the face was dry but perfect. The eyes were gone, but eye brows, the eye lashes, lips and teeth remained. The skin on the abdomen and body generally was in the same state with the face. An unpleasant smell strongly resembling decayed cheese arose from the body, and rendered it necessary to close the coffin quickly.”

Visitors notwithstanding, being stored in a warehouse didn’t suit the fast-putrifying businessman and Baskerville soon changed hands. Plumber John Marston soon found himself the new guardian of Baskerville and was decidedly less conscientious about opening the coffin. Soon, visitors to his corpse (oh yes, there were still visitors) were overcome by the smell of putrefaction and Baskerville had to go. At this stage, Baskerville’s state was less than pretty, but still, no-one would bury his remains. After a series of underhand machinations on the part of Marston, Baskerville was buried in the catacombs beneath Christ Church. However, Baskerville was denied his rest once more when Christ Church was demolished in 1899 and he – along with 600 other internees – was finally laid to rest at Warstone. His one wish of rejecting burial on consecrated ground was not to be. Today his manhandled remains have the best view of the cemetery, which, although pleasant. No doubt would have provided no small comfort.

As I left Warstone via the gatehouse, I believed that no memorial could top the unexpected wonder of the catacombs. However, as I made my way towards the gates, I found myself drawn to a stunningly unique memorial to the Sutcliffe family – a literal family tree.

The monument is a perfect example of the late 19th century naturalism movement by taking the form of a tree stump. The stone trunk stands beautifully stark against the ‘standard’ headstones around it and is the most unusual ‘small’ memorial within the entirety of Warstone. The Sutcliffe tree lists the names of the deceased at irregular intervals, and at jaunty angles, as though they had been carved by young lovers. Sutcliffe’s work is not just a feat of cemetery masonry, but is a beautifully considered piece of sentimental art. Erected in 1888, it was designed and erected by LW Sutcliffe and seemed to  – initially – be conventional in its listing of deceased ‘kindred’.  However, the latest addition is the most emotionally charged, being a eulogy for his eldest son, Isherwood Edmonds Sutcliffe who had died as a result of wounds received in France in 1916.

While Warstone has its fair share of supposed hauntings (an obligatory ‘grey lady’ and a lost WW1 soldier), its appeal lies firmly in the stories left by the living and the remarkable ways by which nature shuffles its way through established structures.

 

 

Sites used in Research/Further Reading:

 

http://www.birminghamconservationtrust.org/2012/10/19/haunted-heritage-warstone-lane-cemetery/

 

https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/william-edward-hipkins.html

 

https://www.birminghampost.co.uk/business/business-opinion/city-securing-sweet-melancholy-death-9810015

 

https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2425682/memorial-search?page=1#sr-111232711

 

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001545

 

http://houndofhecate.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/john-baskervilles-peripatetic-corpse.html

(Sketch image courtesy of the above)