Peter Street

Memoir of a Gravedigger

Chapter 1: Sand

November 1967. Astley Bridge Cemetery.

In the gravediggers’ cabin there were three cemetery workers sitting at the table. All three were pulling hard on Woodbines. The biggest of the three came over, introduced himself: "Arnold."

His hand completely enclosed mine; his bottom two knuckles were out of line, his wrist bone seemed big. I'd seen this before with the Gaff lads - the fairground workers. He'd been a bare-knuckle fighter.
Rick, the youngest of the three, with the tattoos and Brian Jones hairstyle, nodded from across the table. He leaned forward, took the fag from the guy opposite who had just fallen asleep while talking to Rick, and then he suddenly jerked awake. Soon after he fell back to sleep with another fag in his hand.
One week later I was given my first ever four foot six grave. Rick helped me build the wooden staging at a forty degree slant so the earth would be easier to fill back in. He reassured me about it being easy on the C of E patch.

Easy, until we hit water; three foot later. Rick, to stop me from sinking to wherever, brought me a slate to stand on. Fine, until a rising stench: bodies below hit me with a mixture of sulphur and diarrhoea. It was now a dig in a stinking black porridge.

After pulling on a Woodbine he climbed down the wooden sides to show me how to slant the grave floor and then dig a sump ( a round hole lower than the floor) so the water would drain down into the hole and we could bucket it out from there. Easy, aye, once you know how.

After lunch, he brought three slates to lay over the coffin lid to protect our latest member from the backfill crashing through. Also to safeguard the next digger from dropping in unannounced.

My first ever funeral and everything went perfect. Not only, but the undertaker
gave me a five shillings tip. Rick smiled. Nodded, gave me the thumbs up.

We became close friends. He taught me about keeping safe with wooden sides and head and foot blocks to hold up the graves, especially the very deep ones.

A month later it was my turn for a nine footer: again, down on the Church of England section where he thought there was a good chance of hitting sand. Sand? I thought of Blackpool, sunbathing, donkeys, Punch and Judy. But Rick said for safety, we needed to knock in more wooden sides to stop the flood and stone kerbs from dropping in. Our wooden sides were almost touching each other.

Seven feet down and having a rest when: "Running sand!" Rick shouted. He also shouted across the cemetery for Arnold, who was working nearby.

Running sand. He leaned down to grab my hand. The sand was seeping behind and between our wooden sides down, down to the bottom of the grave where it was beginning to fill up. The wooden sides were starting to creak. I jumped up to grab his hand. Missed it. I tried again. Missed. The sand was gaining, dropping faster than ever; the floor was rising up. Sand was now covering my clogs. I was somehow being pulled down. I held my hands up for Rick to grab me. He wasn’t there. Sand was now up to my ankles.

“Rick!”

The sides were beginning to loosen, slide, creak. I looked up again.....

Sand was pulling my legs further down when Rick slid a nine foot plank down and somehow wedged it solid. Tested it by sliding down on it while holding on to what sides were still holding up the grave. Neither of us spoke. The creaking was giving us louder and louder warnings. Yes, it was going to happen. Calm as best as I could be. Rick grabbed my hand, and started pulling me up while trying to climb up the plank. It wasn’t working.

Calm.

He stayed in the grave with me and while waiting he offered me a Woodbine. We had no lighter - no matches.

Creaking and the speeding sand seemed to have calmed. “Have you ever had one of those days?" he asked.

I tried to smile but couldn’t. Two minutes later Arnold was looking down at us both and tutting the way he did. He undid his leather belt and keeping hold of one end, he threw the other end down for Rick to grab hold of. I grabbed hold of Rick’s wrist and together with the help of the plank, Arnold with those arms and huge hands you could strop a razor on muscled us up and out of that sand.

“Next time you’re going to get yourself in the shit,” Rick said, “can you make sure you have a light?”
I couldn’t say anything. There was a fright and an excitement I had never experienced before. I knew I couldn’t tell Mum. My God, she would’ve freaked and my grave-digging days would be over before they had really started.

The three of us were walking up to the cabin when Arnold took me to one side and out of the blue, "Do you get a warning with your epilepsy?"

I nodded.

"As long as we know."

That was it. My epilepsy was never mentioned again.

The following day, there was a kiddie’s bucket and spade waiting for me on the bench next to my clogs. I had passed my initiation: I was now a real gravedigger. It was the first time I had ever been tested. In a way it was also a test for them, which they also passed with flying colours. I was now one of them; a gravedigger. For the first time in my life, I felt I was someone. Not only that, but I was now beginning to see the cemetery as some kind of village that had all the occupants of a normal village: police officers, post-workers, pensioners, children, nurses, doctors, soldiers, and with a few cats and dogs thrown in for good measure…

Peter Street © 2014