The Dangers of Gravedigging

    I recently came across this article about an Austran gravedigger who fell into a grave when the side gave way.  It reminded me how gravedigging is a dangerous and difficult job that is fairly underpaid and under-appreciated.  So I thought I would start the month with a post about the troubles of the gravedigger.

    Cemeteries are not chosen for their good soil.  Most are just clay or sand or a mix of the two.  In any case this makes them terrible to work with.

    Gravedigging is actually a rather dangerous job.  In dry weather at Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park (ESMP), also known as Botany Cemetery, the sand is very fine and lose.  As a result they often cannot use machinery and have to dig the grave by hand.  This means they have to get into the grave and dig with shovels.  They also have to board up the sides to prevent the grave collapsing (which is quite common due to the lose sand).  However the sand still pours through even the tiniest of gaps.  Worse is that if they bump the board or if it is simply not secured properly then the whole side can come crashing down on the diggers.  There have been a few close calls over the years but luckily no serious injuries or issues.  The diggers at ESMP pray for rain as it binds the sand and prevents it moving about so easily, however too much rain and the sound is liable to move about.

    Digging is just as dangerous in the wet, if not more so at certain cemeteries.  At Rookwood for example the soil is made up of a sticky and slippery clay.  The digger trucks at this cemetery are just covered with the clay both inside and outside.  From the steering wheel to the door handles the once white trucks are perfect brown.  Also at these places if they cannot dig with a machine (such as with memorial or difficult to reach graves) then they have to do it by hand.  This is incredibly difficult and can take days to dig a single grave.

    Another issue is in the weather itself, diggers work outside in any and all conditions.  They will work outside even on the hottest days in summer where the temperature is over 40c and there is no shade or wind to cool them.  Something they have to watch for is being burnt.  Anything metal left in the sun on these days becomes so hot it will burn on contact.  So all their shovels and other tools with metal part, the grave covers which have metal handles and so on can burn them if not careful.  A fairly common health issue for diggers is skin cancer, after talking with several over my time I found many who either had a skin cancer removed or knew a co-worker who had one removed.  Even though they used sun-screen and wore hats the amount of time in the Australian sun took its tole.  A less common issue with

    Grave collapses are an unavoidable occurrence.  If you are at a funeral and the grave has fake grass down both or one side it means that the grave collapsed.  In these cases you can often see the coffin, or very very rarely the body, in the next grave.  When this happens the diggers will spray a dis-infectant which smells like odd bubblegum.  They will also put out the seats down-wind of the grave (for obvious reasons as the smell is rather unpleasant).  So again, if you see fake grass, smell strange bubblegum and the seating is in an unexpected spot it means that the grave has collapsed the coffin next to it is exposed.

    There is very little the diggers can do to prevent or lessen this.  I remember one digger telling me how as they dug the graves on one side kept collapsing and falling into the original grave.  The more they dug out the more that fell in and in the end over four graves along had collapsed into the original grave.  He said it was because of the rain, it had rained heavily over the last few days and the ground had moved about.

    Water in the grave is another issue for diggers.  It makes digging the grave difficult and then the family are often unhappy with the sight of water in the grave.  Sometimes it is so bad that the coffin will float when lowered which can really upset certain families.  Unfortunately the funeral directors get the blame, even though they had nothing do do with the grave, or the diggers get the blame, even though there is nothing they can do.  At some cemeteries (such as Forest Lawn) once you dig to a certain depth you hit the water table.  So if the family order a deep grave then no matter what there will be water in the bottom. Again this is an issue with it rains as due to the slope of many graveyards the water will pour into the grave.

    One digger told me about how this happened on one of his jobs.  It was raining so hard that there was (as he put it) a waterfall flowing down the side of the grave.  They had two pumps working constantly but it was slowly filling up.  This is not normally a problem as most families will undertand, but in this case the deceased had died by accidental drowning.  So they were extremely upset with the idea of his coffin being lowered into water.  In the end the funeral had to be postponed and the poor digger coped a lot of blame.

    In the end the diggers are usually really nice people who work very hard.  Often they go above and beyond their duties to help families and funeral staff.  I remember one digger who helped us change a tire on a hearse in his own time.  Unfortunately they also earn too little being paid only minimum wage, as do most in the industry.  So perhaps throw them a small tip, offer them a cold water, or at least thank them for their work.


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