Liverpool: Notes from Underground

As an excellent example of a topic with which he would choose to open any committee meeting, Harold MacMillan once suggested “a debate on the implications of a possible gravediggers’ strike.” This would dissipate the emotional energies of the committee members, allowing MacMillan to get his way on any subsequent matters he cared more about.

An English gravediggers’ strike is no longer a possibility. It is a fact. In Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, and numerous northern provincial towns no one was buried in the public cemeteries for nearly three weeks. The gravediggers went on strike for higher pay against the elected “council” that runs each of these towns. Liverpool was “most gravely affected,” the BBC news reporter said—an unintended pun. When I left Liverpool in early March the city had hundreds of bodies decomposing. The mortuaries, the hospitals, the funeral homes, or “Chapels of Rest,” were full to overflowing. There were pickets at the gates of the cemeteries, more pickets at the gates of the crematoriums. The overflow of corpses was being put in storage in unrefrigerated, disused warehouses. The city had run out of embalming oils and it was apparently impossible for it to obtain any more. No one explained to me why. Doubtless because of some other British strike.

Spokesmen for the Liverpool council and the local Health Authority were reluctant to reveal how many bodies had accumulated since the strike began. They gave out varying figures, two hundred, three hundred and fifty. Liverpool’s chief undertaker told me that they were deliberately underplaying the real numbers because they felt that the public, if they knew the truth, might start to panic. This strike stirred up particularly unpleasant historical memories—cholera in Liverpool, the great pits, the mass graves into which the victims of the Great Plague of London were thrown. The council kept denying there was any health hazard, fearing for the safety of the pickets at the gates of the cemeteries. Under pressure from the national press the Liverpool Health Authority eventually admitted they had sixty “critical coffins.” These apparently contained the bodies of Liverpool ladies who had lived decrepitly in solitude and whose deaths had not been discovered for several days, by which time their embalmment became an impossibility.

To a nation that has become accustomed to being crippled by a succession of disastrous major strikes, the grave-diggers’ strike was traumatic in its melancholy symbolism. It seemed the inevitable outcome of the way the country has been going. It was generally seen as some horrific last straw.

England has now become a country where it is no longer possible even to get buried!” When Mrs. Thatcher made her shrill complaint in February, her accusation was not entirely rhetorical. This strike has had a different impact from all the recent and current English strikes, the trains, the truck drivers, the ambulance men, the garbage collectors, the buses, the subway, the milk, the bread, the gas, the diesel oil, the school canteen staff, the teachers, and the …

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