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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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