Written by Charles Wilkins
Former CCVS graduate and resident of Cornwall, writer Charles Wilkins is grateful that he saved a shoebox of notes highlighting his summer job the foundation for his newly released memoir entitled: “In the Land of Long Fingernails- A Gravedigger’s Memoir.”
The account of that mysterious and macabre summer at Willowlawn Everlasting Cemetery illustrates beyond any doubt that truth can indeed be stranger than fiction. Thrown together with a band of Chaucerlike characters, Wilkins gives a provocative and unabashed account of his life as a gravedigger. The reader is rewarded with insights and observations that only an astute insider could provide.
You will meet the manager of the cemetery, Scotty, a bigoted and arrogant autocrat, whose day begins with a full measure of Cutty Sark, and whose alcoholic induced state of anger and meanness leads the workers to contemplate casting him in an empty grave with strong chemicals, covered with several tons of soil. A sort of farewell finale for the boss.
We learn, perhaps not surprisingly, that there is still a pecking order in death, so the “Garden of the Last Supper” is for the wealthy and dearly departed. The risks for unmarked graves include neglect by the cemetery and hardly any maintenance, and sometimes their disappearance due to ghastly errors. However, regardless of one’s status in life, there are no guarantees in death. Wilkins learned that lesson on his second day at the cemetery, hearing that “Hogjaw,” one of the workers with a reputation as a scoundrel, once swiped a Rolex off of a corpse. Theft of the deceased was always a risk.
All graves were susceptible to changes brought about by weather conditions over time, and to the formation of “sinkers, slurpees and double deckers”- cute terms of the trade. The term, “caveat emptor” apparently applies even to our final purchase of life.
In order to get through the day, and survive the depravity of the “bottom feeding bonehead jobs,” the workers are entertained and fortified by the likes of Luccio, a wayward, reefer smoking, master of economics student from Italy, who reads more books in a week on the job than most people read in a year. Humour is contained in every chapter and often brought on by bizarre circumstances. Imagine the predicament when the gravedigger’s union called a strike in the dog days of August 1969. No corpses could be buried during the strike. “This was no time to croak,” chirped the backhoe operator, under the influence of a light buzz from a joint.
Much has been written about the emotional advantage that those in the death industry have over their bereaving clients. Would you like a “thrift plot” or a “prestige plot” for your loved one? Wouldn’t it be better if Aunt Jane had full sun in summer or she was close to the rose gardens in the spring? Even the cemetery motto, “Eternal Peace, Eternal Maintenance,” seemed to be a last ditch effort to extract a few more bucks for a family’s peace of mind.
So, while the rest of the world was experiencing the flower children, campus protests, and short skirts of the 1960’s, things at Willowlawn carried on as they had for decades. Hundred’s of stories about death told by the undertakers, gravediggers and plot salesmen make up part of the essence of a shadowy subculture which is the death industry. We are both afraid of it and fascinated by it.
I am reminded of a statement made by George Orwell, that if he was to write about something, that he had to experience it first hand, and so he did many times in his life. Charles Wilkins shares this same philosophy in the writing of “Long Fingernails” as well as in several of his previous books.