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.
“That’s where they’ve put the bodies,” the driver said. “Can you wait?” I asked him nervously. “I really don’t want to stay here very long.” “Sorry, I have to go to the airport,” he said. “Don’t look so frightened, luv…. The bodies aren’t going to eat you.”
I got out and the taxi drove off. I went up to the policeman and explained I was writing about the strike. I asked him if this was the factory where they were storing the bodies. “Oh, we have hundreds of bodies in here.” His tone was jovial and complacent. “What do you want to know about them?”
“Exactly how many hundreds of bodies are being stored here?” I asked him. He looked at me with suspicion. His voice became gruff and accusatory. “Why do you care how many bodies we’ve got in this factory? What makes you so very interested?” “Well….” I couldn’t understand why he didn’t see that the precise numbers had a certain interest.
“Are they in coffins?” I asked. I had heard unpleasant rumors that they were being stored in plastic bags. “Coffins?” He looked astounded. I then saw that the taxi driver had dropped me off at the wrong place. I was at a Leyland factory, one of Britain’s largest car manufacturers. When the policeman had spoken of having hundreds of bodies he had been speaking all the time of car bodies. Since Leyland workers were planning a major strike the following day this coincidence had added to our misunderstanding.
“You want the place where they’ve put the deceased,” the policeman said.
Apparently they were just down the road in a disused electronics factory. I wondered if it had closed down as a result of some other strike. As I walked down the road I noticed the most vile and overpowering smell. I tried to pretend it was the stench of industrial waste. But I knew quite well I was getting very near to the deceased.
The factory that held them was a pretentious red brick building with a neo-Georgian façade. It looked as if it had been built around 1930. It had a white flagpole on its roof, but no flag. The pole looked too upright, jaunty and festive. Perhaps it was respect for the unburied that had prompted the council to choose this untypical warehouse with its imposing neoclassical design, this terrible mockery of a stately home. The stateliness of its façade was fatally marred by the fact that where there should have been ivy or Virginia creeper there was an impenetrable entanglement of barbed wire, put there to ward off possible looters.
There was no one on the premises. The bodies had been locked up—sealed off with barbed wire and totally deserted. Who could be expected to sit day and night in this lonely neo-Georgian factory with the dead? Yet I felt the unburied should have been given the symbolic honor of at least being guarded by a policeman. It seemed disturbing that the cars in the Leyland factory were being given preferential treatment. But then what exactly would a policeman guard the dead from? The possibility of looters was minimal. Time was the enemy of these unlucky corpses, not marauders.
The following day I went to the General Municipal Workers center where the gravediggers were holding a mass meeting in order to decide if they would return to work. There was a feeling of excitement and tension, and suspense. The building was surrounded by reporters, including television crews. On top of their demand for a “substantial pay increase” the gravediggers are asking for better facilities in the cemeteries. They want to have showers and changing rooms. They complain they have nowhere to wash after work, and they have to go home in filthy clothes.
The cemeteries have a machine that flattens the graves. This machine is housed in a shed, with spades and other tools. The diggers are bitter because they are not provided with a shed of any kind and they feel that the graveyard equipment is given a care and respect which they are denied. They receive almost unanimous public sympathy for this complaint. The diggers, however, are also asking to have tea machines in the cemeteries. This demand is being much less sympathetically received. Most urban British graveyards are vast and they cover countless square acres. For this reason a single tea machine per graveyard would be impractical. If the diggers are to have hot tea made conveniently available to them a plethora of machines will have to be installed. This creates a genuine dilemma for the local council; to any religious person who sees the cemetery as a hallowed and sacred spot, the thought of it being dotted with multicolored machines is blasphemy. People visualize the graves of their loved ones littered with paper cups. They see this particular union demand as the thin end of the wedge. Once there are tea machines in the graveyards—why not cigarette machines, candy machines, pinball and fruit machines? “The gravediggers are going a bit too far with their tea machines,” Liverpool’s leading undertaker said to me. “You’d think they’d never heard of such a thing as the thermos.”
The mass meeting in the Municipal Workers building dragged on. The press were not allowed to attend it. The television crews and the camera men and the host of national reporters waited impatiently outside for the gravediggers’ verdict. Suddenly a spokesman for the National Union of Public Employees which represents the diggers came out of the door of the building. The reporters surged toward him. The union official was Irish and he looked very pleased with himself. As all the TV cameras focused on him, he announced that the gravediggers had decided to go back to work “but only with a skeleton staff.” Having made his joke he quickly disappeared back into the building.
After another hour and a half the meeting broke up in earnest. The gravediggers filed out of the committee room. They were stared at with a curiosity far more intense than that accorded to other union strikers. Their faces were closely scrutinized to see if their daily dealings with death had imprinted special traces of woe upon their features. In fact the diggers looked no more woeful than any other group of working men. They were mostly rather small, with the stunted look of the badly nourished. None of them had the huge arm muscles one expects from those whose life has been spent digging. Quite a few of them were extremely old, some were very young with the John the Baptist hair of hippies.
One gravedigger was black and I was puzzled how he had been allowed to join this selective white union. The gravediggers have a family tradition—their fathers, their grandfathers, their great grandfathers, etc., were usually all gravediggers before them. Some of these grave-digging dynasties can be traced back to the eighteenth century. They have a pride in their craft which they pass on from father to son. There was evidence of this during their strike in Manchester, a town where you are allowed to bury your own dead, unlike Liverpool, where there is a local law that declares amateur burial illegal. Two brothers carrying their father’s coffin staggered into a graveyard and passed the Manchester pickets. They then proceeded to try to bury it. The pickets watched them with horror. The brothers made such a hideous mess of their grave that the gravediggers could stand it no longer. They left their posts, took the spades from the brothers’ hands, dug a perfect grave—finished it off—then returned to be on strike and keep vigil at the gates of the cemetery.
The gravediggers are a closed shop. They allow no one to join their union unless he is a son, a nephew, a brother-in-law of one of the present diggers. When I later asked the undertaker how the black gravedigger had been accepted he said that a lot of the Liverpool girls “slip up” with the foreign seamen and therefore the black gravedigger must be a relation too.
As the gravediggers filed past the press and the television cameras after their meeting they looked sheepish and bashful. They had been given orders by the union officials that they were not to speak to the press. Their spokesman however gave a press conference. He said that for humanitarian reasons the diggers had agreed to go back to work, but only for four weeks. If the council had not met their demands by that time they were going on strike indefinitely.
What were the gravediggers going to do about the “backlog”? He said they were not going to knock themselves out dealing with the “backlog” unless they were paid overtime for the work involved. He said the gravediggers feel that their services are appreciated only once they are withdrawn. At the same time they regretted and sympathized with the distress the strike caused the bereaved.
After the meeting I went in a taxi to Liverpool’s Jewish cemetery to see if it had been affected by the strike. My driver was a tough Church of England man. It soon emerged he was also anti-Semitic. He said that he bet that Jews were getting away with it. “Trust them to get themselves buried when no one else can manage it.” When we got to the cemetery he got out of his taxi and came in with me. “Look at all the expensive marble they’ve got in here,” he said. He then became wildly excited because he found a freshly dug grave. “Didn’t I tell you! Trust the Jews!”
Usually newly dug graves are a depressing sight but in the curious atmosphere of the Liverpool strike I found myself staring at a dismal strip of wet mud in the Jewish cemetery with a kind of wonder. It looked rather beautiful and miraculous—just because it existed. When a tiny elf-like Jewish gravedigger came out of a lodge, I asked him if he was affected by the strike. He told me he did all his own digging and he was not paid by the council. But he looked terrified, as if he felt it was dangerous to admit this. He obviously was afraid that a peculiar new phenomenon of “grave envy” might stir up ancient racial and religious prejudices, that he might suffer retaliation, and Protestant and Catholic vandals would arrive to despoil and desecrate his graves.
Liverpool’s leading undertaker is brisk and dapper—a businessman. He and his three younger brothers own four Chapels of Rest and also a trucking firm. Undertaking, he said, was a profession that was handed down in families, like that of the gravediggers. The strike had made his life a nightmare. In the Chapel of Rest where we were talking he usually had two occupied coffins, but he now had one hundred and fifty. None of the corpses had been properly embalmed. It was no good pretending they had. He was an embalmer himself. As a small child his father had taught him the trade. There was not much to it. Embalming was similar to what any woman does when she stuffs and prepares a chicken for the oven, he said. It was a question of plugging up the appropriate orifices.
Unfortunately he simply hadn’t had the time to work on the bodies since the strike. He was much too frantic trying to arrange for his hearses to do all the “pick ups” and the “drop offs.” He was using a “freelance” embalmer. The poor man was at the end of his tether and the work was “snowing him under.” The freelance embalmer had done his best, but it was a makeshift job as he hadn’t got the proper oils and salts. The undertaker waved his hand toward the back of the Chapel of Rest on the door of which was written “Enter with joy—all you who enter here.” “None of the bodies in here at present are satisfactory…,” he said. “Not what I’d call satisfactory at all….” In normal times he apparently got few requests for embalmment. The process was not required by the health laws and was too expensive for most families. It costs £50 and the results last only seven weeks. Now in the emergency the relatives were insisting on it. “Fortunately they can’t see what a bad job we are doing here. We don’t dare to let the relatives in.”
During the strike bereaved Liverpool families still insisted on hiring a hearse and three black cars to take them to a funeral at the church. After the service the mourners would go back to their homes while the hearse with the coffin went off in a different direction, to one of the suburban warehouses. “That’s not what most families want from a funeral,” the undertaker said. “People want their dead to have some little patch of ground that belongs to them—a definite place where the mourners can come in order to shed a tear—or plant a rose.” One thing he would say in favor of the strike, though—there was equality in the warehouses at the moment. People who would normally be given a pauper’s grave were getting exactly the same treatment as the well-to-do. He was worried that once the strike stopped, the coffins would get muddled up.
The undertaker said that some of the bereaved families were being extremely unreasonable. They seemed unable to sympathize with the problems of logistics that would face him in the next weeks. They refused to have their coffin taken from the warehouses directly to the cemetery. They insisted it be first taken to a church for a service before it went on to the graveyard. They wouldn’t acknowledge they had already been given a church service—that he’d already once provided them with a hearse and three black cars. They wanted to start from scratch. He warned them he would have to charge them the price of two funerals.
I asked him how he would cope if the gravediggers went on strike indefinitely. He clasped his head in a gesture of agony. “Don’t ask me,” he said. “As I’ve told you, I can’t cope with the backlog we have got at the moment. I have new bodies coming in every day and I have to put them at the back of the queue. A funeral is a slow thing—that’s the trouble. You can’t hurry up the funeral procedures in order to fit more people in….” I could see his point, that it would be startling to see solemn black hearses whizzing like racing cars through the streets of Liverpool as they did their “pick ups” and their “drop offs.”
As I sat in the Chapel of Rest and listened to the problems of the undertaker, they seemed like those of the nation, almost insuperable. Once the backlog of this particular strike eventually had been cleared up the gravediggers seemed likely to go back on strike—as have so many other strikers who cleared up other backlogs. The general prospects, like the condition of the badly embalmed bodies, appeared “unsatisfactory.”
May 3, 1979