A job well done

words: Deborah Torr

After receiving the accolade of Gravedigger of the Year 2016 last month, it’s more or less back to business for David Homer, gravedigger of nine years. When I speak to him, he has just got off the phone with a funeral director, passing on a family’s gratitude, saying they were really pleased with how the grave looked. That, he says, makes it all worthwhile.

To become a decent gravedigger, David informs me you need two things: an aptitude for hard work and attention to detail. Hard work comes naturally, as he digs every single grave by hand, to avoid the machinery of diggers disturbing the peace and quiet of the churchyard.

Meanwhile, his exacting standards have their own origin: “I think that came from being in the Royal Navy. For that, everything’s got to be very smart. There’s no vocational training or qualifications, not that I’ve come across anyway.”

David’s own start in gravedigging was almost accidental: “I’d been working as a pallbearer when my wife Amanda was let down by the gravedigger she’d hired, and so she asked me. I thought I could probably do a better job and make the grave look nice.”

He now owns DTH Burial and Churchyard Services and has five members of staff to help to dig the 300-odd graves he does a year, with two working for him part-time.

“I train them up to exactly how I want things done. There are no corners cut because ultimately they’re representing me. Otherwise they don’t get paid. Only joking, of course.

“The other skill you need for gravedigging is to be good with people. You need to be absolutely spot on when you’re interacting with the families. This afternoon a family stopped by as we were digging the grave. It can be quite distressing for them, but then after the funeral service they came up and thanked me. Those moments are really nice, when you know you’ve done your best for the family, and for the funeral director.”

David, 49, started his working life as a miner before joining the Royal Navy, and then left to work in the Fire Service. In 2007, he began work as a gravedigger.

“All the jobs I’ve had, you’ve got to be respectful in everything you do. At the end of the day I’m trying to provide a service for the families. You only get to bury your parents once, so I make the graves look as nice as I can, to take away some of the harshness. It is quite a harsh environment – to look at it plainly it’s just a hole in the ground. I don’t see it like that though, I see it as somebody’s final resting place.”

To transform the grave from just a “hole in the ground”, David dresses the grave in fabric, lays down turf, lines the bottom of the grave with sawdust and then places flowers in each corner.

“I’m a big believer that there is nothing that I can’t do; nothing is too much trouble. I’ll always go out of my way to help the family.”

David describes gravedigging as a ‘Cinderella’ job. “You’re not there to be on show. You’re there to do the best you can in the background and then watch from a distance.

“There aren’t many jobs where you can give comfort to grieving families. It’s not a 9 to 5 job either, but then I’ve never gone for nine to five office jobs. Some people think it’s weird, but it’s not, you’re providing a service to families. It’s also good to be out in the open, and I like the peace and quiet of the churchyard. It’s absolutely lovely to be honest.”

On average, David digs six or seven graves in a week, with the number increasing in the winter. A typical six-foot grave takes around two to three hours when dug by hand.

“It can be physically challenging, depending on the area, the season and the kind of soil, but you’ve just got to be prepared.

“We have a minimum of a week’s notice so I’ll always think ahead, take a look at the weather forecast and sometimes we’ll go out and prepare things a few days in advance. We never leave anything to the last minute.”

This preparation is important as, besides gravedigging, David also takes on exhumations and the burial of ashes.

“It’s always a full diary every week, so the paperwork gets taken care of by my admin department – my wife Amanda. And I’ve got an accountant to manage the finances. I think if you take on too much you’re at risk of becoming a jack of all trades, master of none.”

Although the majority of David’s work is gravedigging, occasionally he is asked to ‘rod’ a churchyard. This involves sticking a large rod into the soil to find out which plots are vacant.

“I’ll make a note of where is free in the churchyard. Often people reserve graves that don’t end up being used, and there aren’t always burial records for a churchyard.”

Speaking on the shortage of burial sites, David isn’t too concerned. “In my lifetime I’m not sure that we’ll see graveyards run out of space. Ultimately, people still want to be buried in their local area. If a churchyard gets completely full up, they will often reuse graves that are over 100 years old, or the church will extend the land. People think that when you lay someone to rest it’s permanent, but these graves usually guarantee the plot for only about 75 years.

“Once the churchyards are full, it falls to the council to maintain them. It’s always seemed strange to me that that happens – I just can’t get my head round it. I often wonder if there will be enough money in the council pots to pay for maintenance, and eventually I can see some churchyards that are full reopening to fund the upkeep.”

Since David began work as a gravedigger he’s observed some substantial changes to the funeral world. “The industry as a whole has changed so much in the short time I’ve been a part of it. There’s a trend of people new to the industry providing cheap funerals. The question is, are they really any cheaper?

“I think there’s a problem where customers will be quoted one price but by the time you’ve added on the other costs it’s far more expensive. It certainly undermines these established, longstanding family-run funeral homes. Some people come into the funeral industry thinking they can make a quick dollar out of it, but the question is are they offering a good service? I’d say stick with tried and trusted ones.”

David is equally suspicious of the move to online funeral servi ces, worrying that browsing online does not give families the support they need.

“In my opinion, online services are too impersonal – I’d want to sit down with a cup of tea and receive a bit of sympathy.”

David’s main concern is how families are looked after: “I’ll always go out of my way to help a family in need. Online, you can’t do that. I don’t think it’s an industry that can operate entirely online. But for me it’s not a worry – after all, there’s no such thing as a virtual gravedigger!”

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