Go to it, then.
Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright or a carpenter?
Why, then, a grave-maker. For the houses that he makes last till Domesday.
The business of digging a grave is more complex than, perhaps, one might think. Traditional gravediggers used a template, made out of wood, to mark the grave ; and would remove the ‘sod’ (always an unfortunate word) -the turf on the top, before digging using shovels, and sometimes picks and mattocks.
It is a sign of the times that these tools of the grave digger’s trade have been superseded, in many developed countries, by the objective pragmatism of the back hoe loader .
I heaved a wistful sigh as I walked past a portrait in Reading Museum. It was their gallery of Reading faces, people who had played their part in the Berkshire county town in their time.
Like George Tappin. George had a career as the gravedigger at one of the most ancient churches in the county: St Mary’s The Virgin was the place where the town was born, looking as it did over the archery butts provided by Edward IV to practice their archery skills in the Middle Ages. It is often known as St Mary’s Butts, prompting chortling from the indiscreet.
George came along much later. He began digging graves for St Mary’s Butts in 1785 and continued for 30 years before dying himself in 1842, and availing himself of a place in the churchyard.
He was known as ‘George Wheelbarow’ and latterly ‘Old George’.
He was painted much, much later, in 1891, by a local portrait, E. Butler, who had studios overlooking the Butts. I can only surmise the portrait is the result of some considerable measure of late 19th century romantic fancy, and wonder if it looked anything like George at all.
He must have made many friends, for they were well known to have wanted a lengthy epitaph carved on his gravestone. They were not successful, but the epitaph has made its way into the hands of Reading Museum along with the portrait.
“Poor George, a trusty brother of the spade
Hath now done that for him which he had done
For thousands. Thirty Summer’s suns had shone upon him as he mingled dust with dust
And many a passer by, in health, had passed to view his work who had but little thought
How soon he would to George be indebted
For his sad offices. But George is gone –
His wearied frame with lengthened toil overcome,
His labour done he laid him down and died
And added to those mouldering heaps, his own.”
I suppose it was unsurprising that the Vicar objected to this being carved upon his gravestone. For who wants to be known as a mouldering heap between now and Domesday?