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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 printers…. The current hospital and blood donors’ strikes though potentially much more serious still did not have such a demoralizing effect as the strike of the gravediggers. This eerie and unexpected strike aroused feelings of outrage, a sense of violation. There is a general feeling that if one’s society owes one nothing else at least it owes one the right to be decently buried. In a pub I heard a woman saying, “The bereaved can’t bear the idea that the people that they’ve just lost are floating around rotting in warehouses.”

In the eighteenth century Liverpool was an important seaport, international, glamorous, and gay. It thrived on the slave trade. Now it is intensely depressing, provincial, and poor. Only a few Georgian terraces remain as a reminder of the city’s vanished beauty. Most of its eighteenth-century buildings have been razed and replaced by tower blocks and unsightly concrete high-rises. Architecturally it is a mess. The center of Liverpool was bombed by the Germans and gutted in the war and now at its very heart all that has been reconstructed is an ill-planned and tawdry shopping complex. The whole city gives one the feeling that it died long ago and no one chose to bury it. It is therefore ironic that of all English towns it should have been the most seriously affected by the gravediggers’ strike.

When I arrived there during the second week of the strike it was freezing weather and the garbage-strewn streets were shrouded in an unhealthy gray mixture of sea mist and industrial fog. My journey by train from London had taken twice the time it should have done because the train workers were staging a go-slow strike. No refreshments were served on the train because the railway canteen staff were also striking. The hall porter of my hotel told me that Liverpool recently had been even more plagued by strikes than London. It had no bread, milk, ambulance service, social security workers, rubbish collection, or working hospitals. The water-workers were just about to strike, so were the sewage men, the firemen, and the police.

He found the gravediggers’ strike particularly upsetting. “Can you imagine the distress it’s causing to the people who’ve just lost someone? They are making the bereaved remove all the jewelry from their relatives’ bodies. The council are frightened there may be looting in the warehouses. It’s barbaric. It’s like something in science fiction!” The porter told me that the council was trying its best to keep the bodies of dead children on ice in the hospitals. “No mother can bear the idea of her dead kid being put in storage with lots of cancerous old people in some bloody warehouse. The trouble is the hospital morgues are very small and they are running out of space….”

Like many other people that I spoke to in Liverpool he felt the government ought to bring in the army. About the gravediggers as a group his feelings were ambivalent. He felt that they were ill-paid (they earn an average of £45 a week) and that their working conditions were undesirable. On the other hand he thought it was ludicrous that such a small group of men should have the power to create such distress. Liverpool has only fifty-six gravediggers. Manchester has fourteen. He saw no reason in this modern age why there should be any gravediggers at all. He found it ridiculous that three men should still be spending up to six hours hacking away at frozen earth with a pick in order to dig one solitary grave when machinery could do the same job with much more speed and efficiency.

One of the chief complaints of the diggers themselves is that whenever they dig a grave, they almost always find another coffin in the ground. Their feet go through it and they find themselves wading around in foul water which is floating with rotting human remains. They often also see grinning skulls staring them in the face. Their opponents remain skeptical about the validity of this particular grievance and take the attitude that unless the council is allowing people to be buried one on top of another with no time lapse at all, the bones that the diggers come across must be ancient and therefore clean—this leads to the argument that if the gravediggers are so fastidious that they can’t bear to come upon a few clean bones, they have clearly chosen the wrong trade.

The ancient operatic image of the gravedigger as a diabolic scavenging creature with spade and dark cloak apparently still lingers in the psyche of this modern community. In Liverpool I often heard the gravediggers charged with hypocrisy. They were accused of claiming to be underpaid while all the time they were holding down a job which brings them in inestimable untaxed wealth in the form of buried treasure. I also heard them denounced as fraudulent because while they bemoan their £45 a week wage, they refuse to admit either to the general public or to the tax officials that for every grave they dig they receive automatic and handsome tips—in Liverpool, which has a predominantly Irish-Catholic population, it is a custom that the bereaved must “give something to the gravediggers.”

Never, so I was told, has there been a more unpopular union strike. The striking gravediggers were frightened to go into any pub or bar in case they encountered the relations or the friends of someone who had ended up stored in a warehouse.

I asked a doctor working for the city Health Authority what he felt about the strike. He said that its effects obviously were not very pretty—that it was being suggested that the council put the bodies in the ice-rink, submerge them in water, and simply freeze them in so that the kids could figure skate above them. He still felt that the public’s hostile attitude toward the diggers was unfair. “Have you any idea what the morbidity rate of the average gravedigger is?” he asked me angrily. “No,” I said. “No…No…I’m afraid I have no idea.” “Did you know that any gravedigger has three times the morbidity rate of the average British working-class man!”

Later I asked a taxi driver to take me to the nearest cemetery. He looked at me with alarm and horror. It occurred to me that it is not customary to ask to be taken to the nearest graveyard. In general people tend to be specific about which particular one they wish to visit. I explained that I was writing about the strike, that I hoped to be able to talk to the pickets. He said I wouldn’t find any pickets, that they’d locked the cemetery gates and gone home. “I’ll take you up to see one of the factories where they are putting the bodies,” he said. “The bodies are just as much to do with the strike as the gravediggers.” “Yes, I suppose they are,” I said. I had a vivid and ghastly image of the “critical coffins” and I felt nauseated by the idea of having to inspect them.

We drove out of the center of Liverpool into a terrible suburb called Speke. A sprawling industrial complex, it covers a vast area. We kept driving and driving through a hellish landscape where cheap prefabricated factories lie so close together they roll on like fields. Barbed-wire fences provide the only hedges, and the menacing silhouettes of pylons are the nearest things to trees. Driving through this fearful industrialized wasteland the taxi seemed like a tumbrel and the factory with the unburied buried dead about as appealing as the guillotine. We turned off the highway into a hinterland of factories separated by ribbon lanes of concrete. We stopped outside a huge, modern, vomit-colored building, beside which there was an ambulance and a policeman.

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