Perhaps the oddest job I did was gravedigging. This was back when a grave was dug by hand, not with a mechanised digger. It proved to be exacting hard work, particularly in Bristol where clay abounded.
I can’t resist one story the sexton told me. I don’t care if it wasn’t true, it’s a great anecdote. Graves were let to their occupants for 99 years (other graveyards vary). After that it was assumed there was only a skeleton left and probably few would remember the deceased, so the plot was reallocated. The story told of a grave digger working down at around six feet and using a pickaxe on account of the clay. It was dusk when he swung hard and there was a deep ‘waaughh’ noise from beneath his feet. He was out of the hole and across the churchyard in no time. He burst into a pub and had several double whiskies before he could tell anyone what had happened.
You need to appreciate that most coffins from earlier times were fabricated in elm, a wood preserved by the water held in clay. His pickaxe had gone through the lid of such a preserved coffin in a reclaimed grave. The decay of the body inside had created a vacuum which his pick axe had pierced and created the noise.
That job didn’t last long. I quit when digging down to six feet where a relative had been buried at eight feet just a few months earlier. It took a week to get the smell from my nostrils – and my mind.
However, Jane ‘digs’ visiting graveyards and as a result we have visited many.
The remarkable Père Lachaise in Paris, with the graves of Balzac and Bizet, Maria Callas and Piaf, Molière, Proust, Rossini, Oscar Wilde and The Door’s Jim Morrison. The Cimitero Monumentale in Milan with its fantastic statuary and architecture, home to the F1 Ascaris, Einstein’s father, architects, artists, actors, composers, philosophers and poets. The Lafayette Cemetery No.1 in New Orleans where they have a special take on cremation – the above-ground sarcophagus-like burials and the high temperatures apparently reduce buried corpses to dust within a year.
The La Recoleta graveyard in Buenos Aires which BBC online has voted the world’s best cemetery. As fans of the musical, we just had to see Evita’s memorial. Beside it is a huge tree called La Gomera. It’s a 200-year-old banyan tree where old singers sit on benches and will sing a song for your departed for a small contribution.
We arrived in Moscow on a Sunday in winter. The guide organised by my company naturally assumed we would want to see the Kremlin, Red Square and St Basils. She was surprised when we preferred to visit the Novodevichy cemetery and Muzeon Park.
The Novodevichy is where Kruschev and Yeltsin are buried, alongside Chekhov and Prokofiev, Sikorsky and others. Set out like a park, it has tombs with delightful little representations of the deceased’s life. Sikorsky’s has a helicopter, a military commander has a tank…
The Muzeon Park is where, from 1991 after the Communist Party was ‘proscribed’, all the Soviet statues of Lenin, Stalin, Kalinin etc from all over Moscow were dumped. It was startling to see the proud representations of these leaders, some still upright with amusing quiffs of snow on their heads and some lying flat, part-buried in the snow. They resembled a cold version of Shelley’s Ozymandias, buried in the desert with the delightfully ambiguous inscription on its pedestal ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Wherever we go we usually include a graveyard visit.
The latter inspired an incident in Tombstone in my third novel Route of Evil.