Stuart Prior and Helen Frisby 2016

University of Bristol, UK

Grave concerns: the role, place and reflections of the gravedigger in disposal of the dead

Cemetery literature to date has consistently overlooked the importance of gravediggers, which is surprising considering that their activities mediate and shape many aspects of funerary history and archaeology. Full-body burial has been the preferred mode of disposal of the dead in the British Isles from at least the introduction of Christianity in the seventh century AD, up to the mid-twentieth century. Yet we know virtually nothing about gravedigging practice. Since the 1980s, the process of gravedigging has become increasingly mechanized, with the result that traditional tools and techniques are fast disappearing. Gravediggers influence virtually every aspect of burial of the dead, and continue to do so long after the deceased have been forgotten by family and community. This paper examines traditional gravedigging techniques, the gravedigger’s role in the control and management of burial practice, the conventional tools and techniques employed in locating, cutting, backfilling and reopening graves, exhumation practice, the role of the gravedigger as caretaker of funerary space and associated occupational folklore. Data is drawn from an ongoing oral history and archival research pilot project in South-West England, which is capturing surviving historical knowledge concerning the gravedigging profession in order to better understand underlying social and cultural processes.


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