The pains and rewards of looking after the dead

Last week I buried John Saxby’s ashes – not Saxbee, my Diocesan, but John who was born at Scottlethorpe, grew up to manhood before the last war, courted the village school teacher and moved post-war to Warrington. It was from there that his family brought his ashes, to bury them in his parent’s grave.

So it was on a lovely June morning the vicar was seen flying about the churchyard with a spade and a plank in his hand. The spade to dig the hole to pour in the ashes, and a plank on which an ingenious clerical forerunner had pasted the plan of the new churchyard (circa 1925). He was searching for Arthur and Gertrude Saxby. The plan and the monuments were very unclear. My lateral solution was to prepare a burial place in two different graves!


This kind of homecoming is becoming a regular feature of parish life. In October there will be a service of remembrance and the burial of the ashes of the last Earl of Ancaster’s daughter. She died sometime last year. There her mortal remains will join those of illustrious ancestors – the Dukes of Kesteven – who lie in fantastic gothic table tombs covered with moss covered canopies. Her own monument will be a simple obelisk, like her sister’s (whose ashes came from the USA).

Many rural clergy curse an open churchyard. They do create an awful amount of work and anxiety. The churchyard is not an area for collaborative ministry. If cattle break the fence and knock over a monument and eat the floral tributes (as happened in one of the parishes I serve), the families concerned are not interested in talking to anyone else but the vicar. When a contractor working on re-wiring a church dug up huge quantities of bones with a mini-JCB whilst laying a new electricity supply, it was my phone that melted and no one else’s.

Over twenty years most churchyard catastrophes have come my way. They are not something that curacies in town parishes prepare one for. I have learnt from some bitter experience. I have dealt with vandalized graves. Graves that were supposed to be double depth and aren’t – artful grave diggers place the spoil around the grave, cover it with grass mats, place boards on the top to give the appearance of a deeper grave!

Arguments over which monuments are permissible. Arguments over which plots are reserved for whom and where, arguments among a family about where dad should be laid to rest, arguments with contractors who were supposed to cut the churchyard hedge, arguments with grave diggers who throw stones onto the grass and cause the church mower to breakdown. It is an interesting and challenging area of conflict resolution.

No more sextons

It helps to know where folk are buried. Once upon a time, not so long ago, most parishes had their own sexton or gravedigger. Even if they were retired they were still a source of intelligence. In one parish it was Percy and in another it was Bill that I used to drive up to the churchyard, and armed with a long steel rod would wander about in random patterns and try and remember where they had buried someone, sticking the rod in the ground and listening for the tell-tale thump on a coffin lid.

Nowadays each parish is supposed to have a plan of the churchyard showing spaces, marked and unmarked graves and those reserved by faculty (faculties are a subject too soul-destroying for this worthy journal). There are tradesmen called ‘churchyard cartographers’. Two of the parishes I serve engaged one of these. He produced a wonderful set of plans in a ring binder. It was a marvellous piece of work; unfortunately nobody quite knows how to use it, so I resort to the plank!

Life and beauty

The fact is that churchyards are full of life. They are not places of death unlike crematoria and, to a lesser extent, the council cemetery. They are still a focal point for community. There are very few days when graves are not being tended. They are places of continuity and stability. Churchyards offer the perspective of eternity in the village landscape. As I write I look out over the churchyard and remind myself again that it is full of indispensable people. I see the places where I have stood in the act of committal, the last act as priest for some very dear people, and place my hope in the communion of saints.

Churchyards are places of beauty. I recall coming out of church after one Maundy Vigil. The paschal moon throwing a warm light across the churchyard and irradiating the daffodil-clad graves with the colour of the sun. I relish the winter evenings when the frost glistens on the stone and the low sun throws long shadows on the hoary grass. I do not wonder that John Saxby should ask his children to bring his ashes home.

Andrew Hawes looks after eight country churchyards in rural Lincolnshire.