Gravedigging Days and “Digs”

Recalled by Graham Bathgate in Kerikeri

This was for reading at James’s Remembrance Celebration in Christchurch on 11 February 2023.

My great good thanks to the reader of this for me: I tried hard to attend from way up north but my fourth flight of the day doesn’t run at weekends, and our creatures need to be fed. Apart from that there may be another reason for my absence, given lightly in this tribute.

James! He was always James to us at school in Perth long ago in the early 1960s. James’s friends were Ewen, now in Glasgow; Lynda in Aberdeen; Dennis in Perth and John, deceased. I also include Alan McDonald, Tom Bell and Rod Muir, good friends at 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”.

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 (Emphasise to be sure heard), 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, 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! (Speak slowly and knowingly.)

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. It also made me wonder how two intelligent and educated people could behave in a way so utterly opposite, 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 funerals, “fun-fer-alls”.

Not surprisingly our chat in the graveyards would turn a tad morbid, aye joky and poking fun at our situation sitting eating, propped up by a suitably angled ancient headstone. We would joke about not going to each other’s funeral saying stuff like, “I wouldn’t be seen dead at your funeral.” And I’d say to James, “That’ll be easy for you.” I know he got the intended jokey crack there.

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. After much cutting of grass 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” – 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 easy to guess James’s and my preferred spelling there!