Death connects human beings across place and time, few other areas of human experience than disposal of the dead are so replete with existential meaning, yet simultaneously quite so prosaic. ‘Grave Communications; an oral history of gravedigging’ arose from the realisation by Dr Stuart Prior, himself a gravedigger turned archaeologist, that much of what is often interpreted by archaeologists (and historians) as depositional strategy charged with symbolic meaning and historical significance, may in fact be just as much a consequence of the very practical processes of gravedigging, interment and backfilling, and post-interment site maintenance including reopening. A chance meeting with historian and folklorist Dr Helen Frisby at a Death Studies networking event organised by the Centre for Death & Society, University of Bath, and subsequent successful European funding application from the Gerda Henkel Foundation, has led to a pilot study here in Bristol investigating this question. During summer 2015, a series of semi-structured interviews were undertaken in which frontline gravediggers and cemetery office staff were asked about their work, with a particular focus on tools, techniques and how the job has changed (or not) over the years. Interviewees length of service ranged from a few months to thirty years, offering varied perspectives on change and continuity of working practices; meanwhile interviews with retired gravediggers took the research back into the 1970s. The interview data is supported and contextualised by ongoing archival research into the history of each cemetery site.
- death and dying
- Burial practices