Memories of James Gravedigging

Recalled by Graham Bathgate in Kerikeri, this was for reading at James’s Remembrance Celebration in Christchurch on Feb. 11th, 2023.  It can now be heard on my Fine Line Press website if you’d prefer to rest your eyes listening to my dulcet tones. 

James! He was always James to us at school in Perth long ago in the early 1960s. That’s right, there’s a famous quote: “If you remember them, you really weren’t there!”  Well, I assure you James and I were there and we often recalled the Sixties, as did many mutual close friends. Our friends were Ewen, now in Glasgow; Lynda in Aberdeen; Dennis in Perth and school friend, John deceased some time ago. I also include Alan McDonald, Tom Bell and Rod Muir, James’s good friends from medical school in Edinburgh – Alan is now in Barnsley in England, Tom in Brisbane, Rod in Edinburgh. They all called him James (longish pause) … or Jay Bo … Jay Bor … The Man … The Doc … or not infrequently something that’s unmentionable here.  One teacher at Perth Academy used to call him “Borovitch”, saying quite often, “You’re a bit of an eccentric, Borovitch!” …  confirming what we all knew but we preferred the Scottish epithet … “half-daft” which James would use to describe us too.

James and I worked together in university summer holidays in Perthshire, Scotland. We didn’t want indoor work, so we were delighted to find jobs outside, the weather pleasant enough even in a central Scotland summer. It was great to work together, being left to ourselves labouring in our own time, mostly simply cutting grass with hand-operated machines called Flymos. It wasn’t easy work because we had to cut around … the gravestones, some of them ancient and dilapidated. Our official work title was “gravedigger” and indeed we had to help Jock, the head gravedigger on occasion. We’d always had a good laugh at life and now we often had a laugh with tombs and “stones” all around us. Occasionally we had to attend at a grave-side service, when we would wear thin, dark-blue, oilskin coats to hide our work gear – it was also suitable clothing to go with James’s middle name!  Anyway, as soon as the family and friends were off at a respectable distance we would throw off our coats and start pitching the dirt into the hole. At one solemn service at a rural graveyard called Moneydie (pron. Mun-ee-dee) with only grave markers surrounded by a dry stone dyke and then fields and hills, the coffin was ushered in by a bagpiper and a dozen bleak mourners all dressed in black, some men in dark-tartan kilts, the women wearing veils. The oddity of the occasion in deep country resulted in James and me becoming convulsed with hard-to-control laughter, the kind that is not easy to get rid of … no prizes for who started giggling first! 

So there we were, heads bowed, clothed in seriously daft oilskins, hoping that no-one noticed we were on the verge of collapse. On a couple of occasions we had to turn our backs and heave as invisibly as we could. It was the longest graveside funeral service I’ve ever experienced although only about five or six minutes in the end, so to speak. It also made me wonder how two intelligent and educated people could behave in a way so utterly at odds with a funeral service, having to put huge energy into not coming across as clowns at a solemn occasion where the other people around were deep in sadness and grief. The only thing I can say is we managed to be inconspicuous. In long hindsight I blame the bagpiper leading the veiled mourners in … and also our daft flimsy coats! There may also have been a whispered comment from one of us about it being a very grave occasion and we should be graver. Anyway, it was after this that we started calling the farewells, “fun-fer-alls”, and I have to say here we’d often laugh about them, saying things like “wouldn’t be seen dead at yours” and even making a pact not to go to each other’s funferall … sorry, James to have broken my promise! 

To conclude, here’s another little memory from the graveyards. In Scotland a sandwich is called a “piece” as in a piece of bread. Workers carried their “piece” to work for their lunch. I hope that it is still called a piece, a long time syne I’ve been in “Jockland”. After much cutting of the gerse of a morning in the graveyard, James and I would rest our weary limbs to eat our piece on a grassy plot, leaning back against a headstone. Of course, many of the stones bore the inscription R-I-P and we would have a good laugh about “Resting … in Piece”, as we munched our “sannies” – but I think we called it “Resting with Piece”.  

James, you may be gone but we shared much laughter, many a joke, and your oldest friends will cherish many happy and daft memories.  

James “Borovitch” … may you rest in peace. I’m sure it’s easy for you to guess the spelling James would like there!