Gone to ground: what makes a good grave? Photo: Andreas Heumann/Lensmodern
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Six feet under: meeting Britain’s Gravedigger of the Year

To his surprise, Jonny Yaxley, a former landscaper, found he enjoyed the craftsmanship involved in preparing a perfect grave. And he liked learning about the lives of the deceased.

On a crisp autumn morning in a field outside Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, Jonny Yaxley took an aerosol can of white line marker from his truck and sprayed an 86-by-34-inch rectangle on the grass. After cutting along the outline with a spade, he mounted a small excavator and clawed off strips of turf, arranging them like jigsaw pieces on plywood sheets laid nearby.

It’s now 9am and Yaxley – 45, stocky, shoulder-length brown hair whipping across his face, wearing work boots, shorts, a windbreaker and two gold rings in his left ear – is hauling out bucketloads of clay and flint. His assistant, a South African named J P Brouard, lowers himself into the hole. With a tape measure Brouard gauges the depth: nearly five feet. “Yeah? Beautiful,” says Yaxley, who in September was chosen as Gravedigger of the Year at the Good Funeral Awards, the Oscars of the UK funeral trade. “That’s far enough.”

Yaxley used to go deeper. He started digging graves 13 years ago after taking a job with a company that maintained land, including cemeteries, for South Oxfordshire District Council. Burial space was limited, and so coffins were stacked in a single hole, often years apart. (Each new burial involved reopening a grave, and the alarming prospect of disturbing the existing tenant’s remains – as happened to Yaxley early on.) A freshly dug double grave required a seven-foot-deep hole. For a triple, it was nine feet. Hard work, especially if there was no room between the headstones to use an excavator. Perplexing, too. “A double can be a husband and wife,” says Yaxley. “But who is the third person in a treble?”

To his surprise, Yaxley, a former landscaper, found he enjoyed the craftsmanship involved in preparing a perfect grave. And he liked learning about the lives of the deceased. Even after digging close to 1,000 graves, he still tries to find out as much information as possible about the person being interred. On this day it will be a 44-year-old woman who’d had cancer since 2012 and planned her own funeral, down to the cardboard coffin that will swiftly decompose in this “natural” burial ground. She was single until six months ago. Her partner and her dogs will attend the ceremony. “It’s quite a sad one,” Yaxley says. Sometimes, emotions get the better of him. After his grandmother died, his next three burials “were all nans, so that was hard”.

A light rain falls. As Brouard levels the bottom of the grave Yaxley stands on the rim, smoothing the sidewalls with the heavy spade, four and a half feet long, that a welder friend made for him. Then he wheels his barrow towards the trees at the field’s edge. At council cemeteries the bottom of a child’s grave would be lined with sawdust. Yaxley extended the custom to adults. “It’s psychological: no one at a burial wants to see the cold, hard earth,” he says, returning with a pile of twigs and red, gold and brown leaves, and tipping them in. The two men position planks along the edge of the hole to ensure a firm footing for the pallbearers. Four rolls of artificial turf – “butcher’s grass”, Yaxley calls it – are gently lowered over the sides of the grave.

On the carpet in front of the hole he lays two wooden beams, or putlogs, on which the coffin will rest. With the precision of waiters setting a table at an expensive restaurant, Yaxley and Brouard lay out the webbing straps that will be used to lower the coffin into the ground. It has taken three hours, but the work is done. That the mourners will never see them – they will return to fill the grave once the ceremony is over – does not matter. “This is the last thing that anyone will have done for them,” Yaxley said. “You owe it to them to do a good job.” l

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.