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Four decades of gravedigging

by
04 June 2021

Paul Wilkinson unearths the story of possibly the longest-serving gravedigger in England

Simon Warner in the churchyard of All Saints’, Stand, in Whitefield, Manchester

Simon Warner in the churchyard of All Saints’, Stand, in Whitefield, Manchester

SIMON WARNER is a jolly character, but he’s been a grave man for 40 years. He has been gravedigging at All Saints’, Stand, in Greater Manchester, since he was 15. The vast churchyard has more than 7000 graves.

In 1981, when he was still a schoolboy, he volunteered to help the regular sexton at All Saints’, where his father, Canon Robert Warner, was the Rector. Mr Warner believes himself to be the country’s longest-serving gravedigger.

Now aged 55, he combines those duties with a career as a freelance rigger, installing equipment for live theatre and arena shows in northern England for some of the biggest names in the music industry. He combines both jobs in his business title, “Up and Under”; his email address, “diggertherigger”; and — in a nod to the macabre interests of some of the heavy-metal bands that he has worked for — his work handle: the “Grim Rigger”.

Despite all that, he is a cheerful Mancunian, who laughs as he tries to remember how he got into gravedigging. “I had never really had any interest in digging, apart from making holes in the rectory garden — much to my mum’s disgust,” he says.

“I must have seen Arthur Atherton, the sexton, working in the churchyard as I walked home one day. I must have said to my dad: ‘Can you ask Arthur if I can give him a lift?’ It was a sort of joke, and Dad probably just rolled his eyes, but at some point later he told Arthur, and he just said: ‘Tell him to bring a spade.’ I didn’t have one; so I nicked my mum’s. It was literally ‘Get in the grave, and start digging.’ I obviously showed promise. Once he realised I was quite serious, he started teaching me.”

At first, Mr Warner found handling a full-sized spade too taxing; so, one morning, he took his mother’s spade to his school metalwork shop and shortened the blade by six inches.

“It’s hard throwing soil out the top of a grave,” he explains. “There’s soil piled either side, and you have got to clear that, otherwise it all comes back down. So, I used the smaller spade until I had built up my muscles, but I didn’t get into trouble; my mother loved it, because it was easier for her to dig the garden with.” Now, he uses a shovel, which can carry more earth.

He dug his graves at weekends or after school. “Arthur would start a grave and ask me to finish it, or ask me to fill it in after the funeral. I would have my tea and then walk across and fill it in. I can still remember the first coffin I saw. It was ‘Wow!’ It was a new experience.”

 

BACK then, a sexton earned about £30 a grave. “Arthur gave me half, which, for a schoolboy, was good money. Most of my friends were doing paper rounds for a few bob,” he says. Today, a digger’s fee can be several hundred pounds, depending on the time it takes to shift the four tons of soil an average grave contains.

It took him almost two years to learn how to do it properly. When he first started, it took him seven hours, but the quickest that he has managed is two-and-a-half hours, in decent ground. “Clay is horrible if it is wet: it sticks to your spade,” he says, “and sandy ground is rubbish. Sometimes, the sides have fallen in on me.

“The trick is getting the sides vertical without having to get out every five minutes to check. Often, when people dig a hole or a trench, the deeper they go the narrower it gets. Until you actually get out and see it has tapered down, you don’t realise it has happened.

“All mine are coffin-shaped. By narrowing the top, it leaves two corners of firm, undug ground to support the headstone. That way, it doesn’t collapse into the grave as the soil settles. I get the coffin size from the undertakers, and add six inches to allow for the handles. On one occasion, they gave me the inside dimensions by mistake.

“When I found out, I told the undertaker that he had to walk slowly to the graveside after the funeral, as otherwise I might still be in there digging it out. Ever since, I have gone to the undertakers to measure the coffin myself.

Simon Warner’s 40th-anniversary version of his “Grim Rigger” T-shirt

“Once, the undertaker added an extra six inches, and, when I added my six, I ended up digging out far too much soil. That meant I was shifting up to an extra ton of soil. You don’t want it so big you can ride a bike round the coffin.

“Sometimes, you dig up bones. It can be a bit unnerving finding human remains.”

He has used a mini-digger, but finds it too awkward to navigate round a crowded graveyard where it might damage monuments or even collapse old graves. “Doing it the traditional way is satisfying, it’s peaceful. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or snowing, you can chat away to yourself and put the world to rights. It can be very therapeutic at times.

“It’s just you and the churchyard, especially on a nice day. You get the wildlife. Robins come and pick worms from the pile of soil. You can stop and watch the world go by. You get to know the regulars who come to see their loved ones. It’s nice just to chat.”

 

MR WARNER’s parallel interest in the entertainment industry began at school, running the lighting and sound systems for plays and concerts. He became a stage manager in local amateur shows, and left school to take a theatre-technician course. His first job was with a lighting- and sound-hire company.

After a failed attempt to pass an engineering degree — “I couldn’t do the maths, which is quite an important part of engineering” — he worked for six years with the famous Bolton steeplejack Fred Dibnah.

In Christmas 1996, he sparked a rescue emergency when, bored with the holiday TV schedules, he decided to get on with some unfinished work — at the top of a 262-foot chimney. A passer-by thought that he was either stuck or about to jump. “When I heard the sirens, I remember thinking somebody’s Christmas was ruined,” he said. “As the fire brigade got closer, it dawned on me that they were heading for the chimney. It was a bit embarrassing, because there was quite a crowd at the bottom.”

He returned to backstage work in 1998, and has since worked with performers ranging from Elton John and Madonna to Iron Maiden and AC/DC.

All this time, he was digging graves at All Saints’, and occasionally at other neighbouring churches. It often meant that he would work at night by the light of two church candles inside the grave, so that no light escaped to worry passers-by.

“I often get asked if I have seen any ghosts, and there are stories that All Saints’ churchyard is haunted, but, actually, that was down to me. There had been a lot of vandalism: children pushed over headstones and threw stones though the church windows. They used to sit on a wall, drinking cider, and even burned down the tennis pavilion over the road.

“So, one night, I dressed in my black motorcycle leathers and hid behind a tree. When I suddenly appeared, the girls screamed and they fled. I did that over a number of nights, and ever since then no headstone has been pushed over. It’s gone into local folklore that the place is haunted.”

“I have seen all the spectrum of grief here,” Mr Warner said, “from stillborns to people who have died at 110. I absolutely hate doing graves for children. You still have to dig a full-sized grave to be able to excavate it properly, and you have to be in the bottom so they can pass you the coffin. It’s horrendous: the parents often want to go in the grave and put the coffin in. I can get quite emotional, even after all this time.”

These days, he limits himself to burials of cremation urns in holes just two feet square and deep. “Most churches are running out of spaces,” he explained. “All Saints’ is nearly full, and the ground they are using now floods in heavy rain. More ashes pits are being dug now to save space.

“I would recommend gravedigging as a job — if you have the right mindset. You have to have respect for what you are doing, and you do see some not very nice sights, but it is very rewarding.

“I used to hate digging in midsummer in the middle of the churchyard, where there is no tree cover, in 28 degrees’ heat; but, when the bluebells are out, and the birds are tweeting, it is just very peaceful. Over the past 40 years, I have thoroughly enjoyed it.”

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