“Capital is an historic necessity, but so too, is its gravedigger, the socialist proletariat.”Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, 1916
In fiction and legend, the gravedigger’s profession is traditionally envisioned as a solitary one, a silent dance between two momentarily entangled strangers—one finished with life’s labors, and the other still wielding a shovel. The act of burial itself has both captivated and chilled the living for at least 130,000 years, since Neanderthals and early homo sapiens began digging pits to hold their dead. Burial practices can vary widely between various cultures, but Europeans (and their eventual colonial spawn) decided long ago that the ideal place for our departed friends was six feet underground, preferably pumped full of chemicals and sealed in a big, heavy wooden box—and that it was someone’s job to put them there.
Of course, a gravedigger’s (or, in modern parlance, a cemetery worker’s) job is not what it used to be. Now, these workers operate heavy machinery, maintain cemetery grounds, and dig foundations for headstones and monuments; the classic horror movie trope of the lone disheveled gravedigger with his shovel and menacing cackle doesn’t quite apply. These are skilled workers whose world straddles maintenance, construction, and landscaping. They’re the first on the scene at a funeral to ready the grave, and the last to say goodbye to the deceased. It’s tempting to romanticize the gig, but even with the aid of modern advancements, digging graves remains hard, dirty, intensive labor that can wear down the physical body and take a mental and emotional toll. “Gravediggers are just people doing a job which is hard, monotonous labor,” cemetery worker Steve Tolle remarked in a 2017 interview for his daughter’s horror blog. “We see the aftermath of death every day and must be able to let it go so we can enjoy our lives, which can be a challenge at times.”
It’s not all bad, though, and for some, it beats working in an office. In Studs Terkel’s 1974 classic Working, Homer Martinez, a gravedigger and caretaker at Shalom Memorial Cemetery in Illinois, told Terkel that, “I have this question all the time: ‘How can I take it?’ They ask if I’m calm while I bury people. If you stop and think, a funeral is one of the natural things in the world.”
It’s not all that solitary, either; cemetery workers now generally operate in teams, and the actual burial is completed in minutes, as long as the earth and the weather cooperate. Gravediggers are no strangers to cooperation on the job, nor are they afraid of collective action. A number of unions currently represent these workers in the U.S., including SEIU’s Cemetery Workers’ and Greens’ Attendants Union Local 265. There’s a long history of gravediggers going on strike.
It’s truly a wonder that any boss has ever dared to push them to that point, though, given the truly unique (and yes, potentially ghoulish) sort of leverage these workers have over their adversaries. Because, you see, when the gravediggers put down their tools and walk off the job, the bodies start piling up. The impact on grieving communities and individual families can be immense. No cemetery operator wants to see burial operations interrupted by a labor dispute, and neither do the workers themselves, who hold a deep understanding of the social and often spiritual importance of their profession. However, this also makes the decision by workers to strike uniquely challenging, and navigating those tensions and responsibilities while also fighting for one’s rights at work can be a tricky balancing act.
That’s what happened in 1949, when tensions rose between the trustees of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Queens, New York, and 250 of its cemetery workers (which I’ve been using interchangeably with “gravediggers” because they both sound extremely cool, and it is Halloween, after all). The workers were predominantly Irish and Italian Catholics who earned $59.40 (about $690 in today’s dollars) for a six-day, 48-hour work week. After a breakdown in contract negotiations, in which the workers were pushing for a five-day, 40-hour work week, higher wages, and overtime for weekend work, the union called a strike for January 13th.
The work stoppage lasted for just under two months, and in that time, a thousand bodies went unburied. Cardinal Francis Spellman, archbishop of the city’s Roman Catholic archdiocese, summoned 200 untrained college students from St. Joseph’s Seminary to fill in. As the Catholic Worker noted drily, “The astute and media-savvy cardinal, however, characterized his seminarians as ‘volunteers’ doing only the Christian corporal work of mercy of burying the dead.” The strikebreakers were unapologetic about their role, with the cardinal telling The New York Times, “If stopping a strike like this isn’t a thing of honor, then I don’t know what honor is.”
The strike caused a stir amongst the city’s Catholic labor activists, particularly the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU), the Catholic Worker newspaper, and its founder, renowned Catholic anarchist labor activist Dorothy Day, who personally took up the cause. As ACTU counsel John Harold said, “It is more important to recognize the right of workers to bargain and to pay a living and just wage, than to bury the dead.” They all joined the strikers on the picket lines, both at the cemetery and outside the cardinal’s residence at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, and delivered food and medicine to the strikers’ families. Day wrote directly to the cardinal, emphasizing the economic hardships the workers faced and imploring him to, “Go to them, conciliate them. It is easier for the great to give in than the poor. They are hungry men, their only weapon has been their labor, which they have sold for a means of livelihood, to feed themselves and their families.”
Regardless of rich and poor, the class antagonisms which exist between the well-to-do, those that live on Park Avenue and Madison Avenue and those who dig the graves in the cemetery, regardless of these contrasts which are most assuredly there, the issue is always one of the dignity of the workers.Dorothy Day
What may have begun as a straightforward dispute over time and money also morphed into an internecine squabble over communism, as conservative Catholic leaders continually red-baited the union members and Cardinal Spellman decried their “tactics” as “communistic.” The source of that particular dispute originated in their local’s multiracial, left-leaning parent union, the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural, and Allied Workers (FTA), which was affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Outraged by the implication and stung by the lack of support from the FTA, the workers quickly took an “anti-Red oath” denouncing communism. At the archdiocese’s insistence, they also disaffiliated from their parent union and the CIO, joining the more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) as members of the Building Services Employees International Union. They went back to work on March 12th after accepting an 8.3% raise (instead of the 20% they had sought) and saw no changes to their work schedules. It was a bitter end to the dispute, but would be far from the last time the gravediggers would call the bosses’ bluff.
The 1970s were a busy era for labor activism, and gravediggers were no exception. In 1975, 1,700 members of the Local 365 of the Cemetery Workers and Greens Attendants Union struck at 44 cemeteries in the New York metropolitan area. Once again, the workers were fighting to boost their modest wages. This time, they hoped to augment their weekly $126.50 by $60 per week. By the end of the 27-day strike, the workers had won a small increase—and 1,400 bodies lay waiting to be buried. Absent from them were the dead of the Orthodox Jewish community, whose faith requires burial within 24 hours; in recognition of that, the union had invited friends and family of deceased Orthodox Jewish people to enter the cemetery and bury them in accordance with their religion. Picket lines are sacred, but the workers understood that so are many other things in this world, and beyond it.
The next year, gravediggers from Cemetery Workers Local 265 on the West Coast launched a four-month strike that shut down ten California cemeteries in Palo Alto and Colma, a small town on the San Francisco Peninsula with “500 living residents and hundreds of thousands of graves.” Labor unrest returned to Colma in 1985, when the 180-member Cemetery Workers and Greens Attendants Union instigated the fourth strike of local cemetery workers in the past 14 years. The combination of manual labor, low pay, and cemetery-specific occupational hazards continued to spur cemetery workers to strike throughout the 1980s and 1990s, like when 160 members of SEIU Local 106 struck at 26 Chicago-area cemeteries for 43 days in 1992. The dispute—which saw bosses rudely dismiss the gravediggers’ work as “low-skilled,” to which the workers responded by detailing the myriad duties that came with their specialized profession—ended with a lockout, and a federal mediator had to be brought in to find a resolution.
Across the pond, merciless storms buffeted the British Isles as a massive wave of strikes overtook the nation during 1978 and 1979’s cruel Winter of Discontent. A group of cemetery workers in Liverpool found themselves embroiled in a conflict that became the subject of feverish national attention. The 80 workers were members of the GMB, a general trade union, who decided to join the thousands of public sector employees already on strike across the country. The city’s sanitation workers asked them to lead the charge (the “binmen” were tired of always being the first to strike), and they agreed. Their wages were low, their work was difficult and dangerous, and they’d had enough. “I have lost count of the times when the earth around me has caved in while I’ve been digging,” one Liverpool gravedigger told reporters. “Just when you think you’ve finished, you find yourself up to your neck again in mud. Every day of your life, you run the risk of being trapped and smothered.”
The backlash was immediate and fierce. For those ten days in January, the workers were demonized in the press and condemned by anti-worker ghoul Margaret Thatcher; photos of unburied bodies ran on the front pages under headlines screaming things like “Now They Won’t Let Us Bury Our Dead!” Members of Parliament called the strike “an outrage to human decency.” The workers decided to end the strike after a week and a half, concerned that it was hurting everyday people instead of the government that was causing such suffering. Conservative politicians, seizing on the strike’s shocking imagery to batter the Labour Party, swept into power in the next election, allowing Margaret Thatcher to launch her own war on the working class. “This was all about a group of low-paid people fighting to try to get a better deal,” Ian Lowes, a union activist who was the gravediggers’ GMB convenor at the time, told Mirror in 2019. “They had a right to withdraw their labour but, when they did, the consequences were terrible.” In 2021, with Thatcher safely rotting in her own grave, Liverpool’s cemetery workers threatened to walk out once again, but managed to strike a deal at the eleventh hour.
And then, there are the cemetery workers who cannot strike at all. Earlier this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged New York City and everywhere else, people inside its Rikers Island jail complex were faced with an impossible choice. For over 150 years, a rocky spit of land in the East River known as Hart Island has functioned as a “potter’s field”—a public cemetery known as the last repository for the poor and nameless dead—and the thousands of graves that dot its lonesome surface have been dug by the incarcerated workers of Rikers. Over one million souls are interred there. According to a 2008 report from the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, approximately 30 percent of people who die in New York City eventually end up on Hart Island. Its residents are buried in plain pine boxes, their bodies unembalmed, their graves unmarked.
It is a desperate place, and the people tasked with its burials have mixed feelings on their work. Some welcome the opportunity to work outside in the sun, while others are less enthused. News broke in March 2021 that Rikers’s incarcerated workers were being offered $6 per hour and guaranteed PPE to dig the graves of COVID-19 casualties, which some workers rightly saw as something of a devil’s bargain. But unlike cemetery workers on the outside, they were without the protections of a union, and deprived of any semblance of choice. Refusal to comply could result in punishment or retaliation, and a deadly, poorly understood pandemic was not the time to be taking any chances. Workers inside have always found many ways to resist, including engaging in work stoppages, but it’s simply a different landscape. Unlike their counterparts outside the walls, they did not have the option of complaining to a manager or walking off the job. You can’t walk a picket line in shackles.
And so the gravediggers of Hart Island did not strike. They continued on with their grim task before returning to their crowded, fetid dorms at the end of the day’s work, hoping against hope they’d make it out alive.
As each of these strike actions and many more besides have shown, cemetery workers and the work they do are both absolutely essential, whether or not there’s a plague on the loose. Without them, neither the living nor the dead can find peace, and the vital importance of their work should leave no argument over whether they should be paid fairly and treated well. Greedy bosses who have refused to recognize that have done so at their peril.
Remember, gravediggers know where all the bodies are buried. Who do you think put them there?♦
Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and organizer based in Philadelphia. Her work on labor, class, politics, and culture has appeared in Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Baffler, and Esquire, among other publications, and she is the author of FIGHT LIKE HELL, a forthcoming book of intersectional labor history. Follow her on Twitter @grimkim.