Crowned Gravedigger of the Year at the 2022 Good Funeral Awards, Maria Brancati tells Sharon Barnard why she feels so proud, and debunks a few myths about her work
“We do not simply dig holes!” insists Maria who has been working for Middlesbrough Council for around four years.
“Each burial is an excavation, with the potential of serious injury if not carried out with professionalism and precision.
“Our role is very complex,” says the former gardener whose tools of the trade include JCBs, dumper trucks, tipper vans and quad bikes plus some hefty power gear.
“We dig with machinery and by hand. We work in numerous cemeteries. We bury the dead from all faiths and religions. We carry out exhumations,” she explains.
Out in all weathers, today’s gravediggers also attend to everyday horticultural tasks such as cutting grass and planting graves as well as picking up litter and generally keeping the cemetery maintained.
But that’s not all. They deal with the public and are often a shoulder to cry on.
“Unfortunately we are usually the first to get shouted at or receive abuse,” says Maria.
Another myth she is quick to debunk is that gravediggers do this job because they don’t have any qualifications.
“We all have qualifications and experience of working in a number of fields. Ex-funeral directors, firefighters, designers, wholesalers, horticulturalists are just some of the team members, holding degrees and boundless qualifications.
“Gravedigging is not just a job, it’s a vocation. It’s a low paid, dirty, smelly, hard job. We help people at an awful time in their lives – this is what makes it worthwhile.”
And the view that only men can be gravediggers is also quickly dismissed.
“I am the first woman for my local authority to work as a gravedigger and one of the first in the UK.
I am proud to think that I have helped pave the way for other women to follow in my footsteps.
“Physical and mental strength are part and parcel of this role, regardless of gender. However, the right attitude and character are key.”
So how did she feel when she was named Gravedigger of the Year?
“I am happy to have been one of the first women to do so. I am extremely proud because the journey here has been very difficult – mentally, physically and emotionally.”