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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue