Six Feet Under

Kevin Hards goes six feet under and talks about his life as a gravedigger.

Kevin Hards is a big chap. I can see his mop of grey hair bobbing up and down behind a pile of earth like a hedgehog with a new hairdo as he digs out the stony earth from the pit he is standing in. On a blustery spring morning, Kevin has already shovelled over 2 tons of soil in preparation for tomorrow’s funeral and there is still at least 6 more to be dug out: it is going to be a long day in the graveyard. Kevin is a sexton; a multitasking employee of the church, a job that involves putting out the hymn books for services, lighting candles, keeping the church grounds neat and tidy and digging graves. Like his father before him Kevin is attached to St Martin’s Church on the outskirts of Looe where he has been sexton for 11 years. Kevin’s great grandfather, a naval seaman, was originally from London but jumped ship at Fowey one day and stayed in the area. Lying low, he was never caught and eventually married a local girl. Settling in Looe, he spent the rest of his life bringing up his family and working on land owned by St Martin’s Church. Kevin’s father Ron became sexton in 1968 and on retiring 30 years later, Kevin took over the job having helped his father at the graveside since he was 14 years old and works on behalf of the present vicar, the Reverend Mcquillen.

Being an experienced gravedigger also means Kevin, 43, travels to other churches in south east Cornwall to carry out his duties and today at Lostwithiel graveyard, perched on a hill just above the town, the going is fairly tough. At 76, these days his father Ron prefers to supervise and sits in the van, keeping an eye on his son’s work.  “There’s a lot of granite spar and clay in the soil but I should have this one finished in a couple of hours,” says Kevin. “Sometimes it can take all day. When I have to dig through solid rock like in the graveyard at Helland near Bodmin, I have to use a jack hammer and literally create a rock tomb, whereas at Lanreath and St Neot the soil is soft so I can get them done in 3 hours flat.”

In most cases, especially when it’s a reopening (placing family members in the same grave) it’s impossible to use a mechanical digger as there is no room to manoeuvre between the graves so it’s all down to Kevin’s brawn and skill. “After digging hundreds of graves over the years I’m pretty fast, but on cold, wet days in the winter it can be a really hard job”. But as his father Ron asserts, “When the undertakers shout you have to go, no matter what the conditions”

These days Kevin prepares around three graves a week. “Back in the 1980s I was working flat-out” he recalls, “But since then more people are choosing to be cremated and only around twenty percent are buried nowadays”.

So is it really six feet under?  “ It depends on the coffin size really” says Kevin. “But I’m six foot five, so when I can just see over the edge of the grave, I know it’s probably deep enough. Then we usually dig seven feet long and two and a half feet wide” Kevin says that to most people it may seem like it’s just a case of digging a hole but there are many factors to take into consideration. Precise measurements and taking into account the type of soil are vital to avoid accidents while dealing with several tons of soil. Ron recalls the day many years ago when the grave he was digging collapsed. “There was a new vicar in the parish at that time,” he recalls. “ He said we were leaving too much space between the graves so tried to get us to squeeze more in. That day the soft soil was a real problem, and before I knew it the grave walls collapsed and I was buried up to his neck in wet soil and had to wait for nearly an hour to be rescued by my father. Mind you, after that the vicar never interfered again”.

During a Cornish winter, rainfall can also throw up problems. “ In very wet weather we can turn up for a funeral to discover the grave full of water” says Kevin. “Then we have to stall the vicar while we frantically pump out the water. You don’t want the grave to flood again the coffin to float tothe top before the end of the service”

To most people graveyards are peaceful places for quiet contemplation but for others they can be a little spooky. “The dead have never bothered us. No, it’s the living you have to watch out for”, laughs Ron. “Churchyards are peaceful, so I’ve never experienced anything supernatural”, says Kevin. “And in all the thousands of tons of earth I have dug, I’ve never found anything interesting. No hoards of gold. No ancient artefacts, just tons and tons of soil!”

As gravediggers, Kevin and Ron have to deal with grieving people on a regular basis and indeed after a funeral is over they are the last people to have contact with the deceased as they back fill the graves

“We both have a lot of reverence for what we do. It’s last thing you do for someone, and you take pride in doing it right; making it neat and tidy. You try not to get emotionally involved in this job, but sometimes it’s very distressing,” reveals Kevin.

Over the years Kevin has buried his own relatives, which he has found understandably upsetting and just up from where Kevin is working there is a simple plot adorned with flowers. It is a grave of a one-year-old child. “ I did that one”, says Kevin. “From the day I started helping my father when I was very young he always said to me ‘Don’t get emotionally involved’, but it can wreck you especially if it’s a young person or someone killed in a tragic accident, but you have to go home say ‘Job’s done’ and you have to switch off. I enjoy a game of darts and pool at the social club in Looe and I’m a great fan of science fiction novels so I find ways to relax after a stressful day”. His other interest is in astronomy, which prompts Kevin to thoughtfully quote “His feet are in the soil but his eyes are to the heavens above”

Kevin jokes that his chances of a being a professional footballer have gone, so he sees himself carrying on the same job until he retires. “ In this day and age when everyone is worrying about job security, at least I know my work is guaranteed”.

As Kevin finishes his digging he looks back to make sure everything is as it should be: neat and tidy. As father and son get ready to go home they both say they want to be buried when they die. Ron looks out over the graveyard as the sun spreads over the primroses and daffodils and smiles. “ Yes we definitely both want to be buried. It means there’s a headstone, it’s somewhere to visit, and we’ll go back to nature”.