I used to work in a cemetery. It was a dead-end job, but you could always bury yourself in your work! Oh, ho ho ho!
I humbly beg your pardon. I shall start again.
I returned to the county town of Carrotshire after a couple of years’ absence abroad. I was in need of employment while I pursued a few courses at night school, and I eventually got a job as a trainee at the Carrotford Municipal Cemetery and Crematorium. I am not a big fan of nicknames, but a happy by-product of this period of employment was that for a long time afterwards people called me Gravedigger. Which, as nicknames go, isn’t bad. Later on it got shortened to Gravy, which is not quite as satisfactory. But I digress.
My duties were on the Cemetery side of the operation, and amounted to gardening and landscaping with the occasional interment thrown, as it were, in. I learnt how to drive a tipper and a caterpillar tracked vehicle, and to operate the various mechanical attachments which could be fitted to it. It was all good, healthy outdoor work. You get home cream-crackered, sleep like a babe, and wake next morning full of energy and ready to strim another half-acre of grass or rake up endless barrow loads of dead leaves as the season dictated.
I’d had a bit of a shock when I met my colleagues, as at first blush they were the dregs of the lowest back street boozers that Carrotford had to offer. Which was in fact precisely what they were. There was a superannuated Teddy Boy with a razor stripe down one side of his face, who’d done a ten-stretch for beating two blokes nearly to death with one of those wrought iron chairs you used to find in pubs. And there was Roy the Skinhead, six and a half feet tall and built like a brick privy, and known around town as a right evil tw*t. The others were even less appealing. But they turned out to be as congenial a bunch of roughnecks as you could ever hope to meet. When it rained, we’d retire to a potting shed, drink tea, smoke fags and play endless games of Brag.
The eighteen months or so that I spent there was a happy time. I’m not a morbid chap, but I’ve always found graveyards to be interesting if melancholy places. And the more I got to know Carrotford Cem, the more fascinating it became. Municipal Cemeteries and Crematoria first sprang up in the 1850’s as rising population levels meant that church burial grounds reached saturation point. Crematoria, too. Cremation is not actually a Church of England rite but a Utilitarian approach to the problem, which was legalised and promoted by the mid-Victorians.
Carrotford Cemetery is a jewel of its kind. It was artfully landscaped in a rolling fashion with little stands of trees here and there and, within the limitations of its boundaries, presented an array of charming vistas. A healthy and imaginative stock of trees and shrubs meant that it always looked attractive and the grounds keeping was, and I say this in all modesty, second to none.
A graveyard is of course a permanent reminder of your own mortality. There was one monument which particularly caught my attention- a memorial to about fifty soldiers of the same Scottish regiment from the First World War. But when you looked closely, they had all died in the winter of 1919-20, the year after the war had ended. They had survived the war and been shipped back to Britain to await demobilisation when the Spanish Flu epidemic had struck. Young chaps too, most of ’em. About the same age that I was back then.
There was also a dog who lived in the cemetery, by his master’s grave. A little white dog of the terrier kind. He’d take the food we left out for him, but always evaded our attempts to catch him. He’d been there for about three years when I got there, and he was still there when I left. Summer and winter,rain, snow or shine, the little fella wouldn’t leave his master’s side.
The disposal of the dead is a very technical business. There was a huge manual detailing the regulations and laws regarding the operations of cemeteries and crematoria, and the physical aspects regarding the dimensions of graves and so on and so forth. There was actually a career path there as well. And for a while I had it in my mind to move over to the office side and get into management. I was a bright lad, and who knows? It’s always the road untaken, isn’t it?
Funerals and cremations were, of course, our main business. But they were less frequent than you might think. One or two a week, as I seem to recall. With perhaps a spike over the Winter, but rarely more than ten a month. But there was an even rarer occurrence: exhumations.
The reasons why an Exhumation Order may be granted are strictly limited: either reburial elsewhere, or by order of the Coroner for further examination of the remains. The circumstances under which and how an exhumation can be performed are tightly proscribed. It has to be done as early in the morning as possible, the site has to be screened from view and a competent senior cemetery officer has to be present to oversee the work, a funeral director and hearse are also required and a police officer may also be present. Participation in an exhumation is also something of a rite of passage for cemetery workers. ‘You ain’t no proper gravedigger till you’ve dug your first one up agin’ was how it was expressed to me.
Only one exhumation was ever scheduled while I was there, and I was very keen to take part. I pestered the foreman and the supervisor, Ted, until I was grudgingly allowed to participate. ‘Fair enough, but don’t come crying to me afterwards if you don’t like it. And don’t bother eatin’ before you gets ‘ere, neither. No bugger wants to see your bastard breakfast on the way back up.’ Don’t worry about me, Ted! I’ll be fine! No problem! You wait and see!
I have it in my mind that the remains to be disinterred were those of a member of Carrotford’s sizeable Italian community, whose family wished to send them back to the Old Country. I also have it in mind that when a body is interred with a view to a future reburial elsewhere the coffin must be of a particular construction, lead lined and hermetically sealed if I remember right, and that a time limit is in force. I may be wrong in my conjecture as to the reason for the exhumation for on at least one count, as we shall see, the stipulations had not been met.
Three o’clock on a raw November morning. Pitch black, freezing rain lashing down. The Cemetery sits on a low gentle slope leading down to a river and the water table is always high. It had been raining pretty continuously for days and the ground was sodden underfoot. We faffed about getting the generator to work and setting up the portable banks of lights, and erected the sight screen around the perimeter. A copper turned up and stood there morosely, water dripping off the brim of his helmet, as we manoeuvred the excavator into position and set up the mechanical derrick.
As soon as the first tentative bucket load of earth was scraped away, it became apparent that something was awry. An unholy stench began to permeate the air, and increased in severity the deeper we dug. By the time it came for one of the lads (not me, a fact for which I am eternally grateful) had to get into the grave for the close spadework, the air was thick with the reek of decomposition. I tried breathing through my mouth, but that only meant I could taste it as well.
Two bands were looped underneath the coffin, one at each end, and were fed up and through the derrick’s hawser and we set the engine in gentle motion to lift the coffin.The coffin was about halfway up, when one of the derrick’s outriggers sank six inches into the spongy ground and the whole contraption lurched sideways. The coffin swung at the end of the cable, and the foot of the coffin bumped into the side of the grave, crumpled like wet cardboard and split away. And for a second, starkly illuminated in the harsh electric electric lights, I saw a sight which still lurks in the recesses of my worst nightmares. Close by I heard somebody, possibly me, making little choking noises at the back of his throat and then, mercifully, I blacked out.
Carrotford boasts one other jewel in its crown, apart from the cemetery. It is home to a famous brewery which, I believe, is still in business today so I shall refrain from giving its name. The brewery sits by the river which runs through the town, and originally drew its water from it. But by the early twentieth century the river was too polluted to be used for brewing, and the company began to cast about for a nearby supply of water.
They found one, a freshwater spring a little further up the slope behind the cemetery. They applied for a licence to lay a pipeline through the cemetery, and were duly granted it under strict conditions regarding the disturbance, removal and replacement of any remains which lay on the path of the pipeline.
It is said that despite the conditions the company had undertaken to abide by, the work crew was less than scrupulous in the observation thereof. Especially in the case of older graves where no family might remain to object, the trench was dug and the pipe was laid through whatever might lie beneath the surface.
The brewery touts its wares, even today, with a snappy slogan: ‘The Beer with Body!’ they call it. As well they might.
And that is why, Comrades, from that day to this I have ever only drunk lager.
© Bobo 2019
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