Gone to ground: what makes a good grave? Photo: Andreas Heumann/Lensmodern
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.