Gravedigger: Wikis


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For other uses of "gravedigger" or "Grave Digger", see gravedigger (disambiguation).

A gravedigger is a cemetery worker responsible for digging graves used in the process of burial.



Viktor Vasnetsov, Grave-digger, 1871

Fossor (plural Fossors) or Fossarius (plural Fossarii), from the Latin verb fodere 'to dig', referred to grave diggers in the Roman catacombs in the first three or four centuries of the Christian Era. The determination, from the first days of the Church, of the ecclesiastical authorities to inter the mortal remains of the faithful in cemeteries reserved exclusively to Christians, brought into existence the class of workmen known as fossors. The duties of the Christian fossor corresponded in a general way with those of the pagan vespillones, but whereas the latter were held in anything but esteem in pagan society (many religions consider corpses, and sometimes anyone who touches them, 'unclean' also in a religious sense), the fossors from an early date were ranked among the inferior clergy of the Church (Wieland, Ordines Minores, 1897).

An interesting literary reference to fossors, in their character of one of the orders of the inferior clergy, is found in the "Gesta apud Zenophilum", an appendix to the work of St. Optatus of Mileve against the heretical Donatists. Speaking of the "house in which Christians assembled" at Cirta in the year 303, during the persecution of Diocletian, this writer enumerates first the higher orders of the clergy present, from the bishop to the subdeacons, and then mentions by name the fossors Januarius, Heraclus, Fructuosus, et ceteris fossoribus ("Opp. S. Optati", ed. C. Ziwsa, in "Corpus Script. Eccl. Lat.", Vienna, 1893, XXVI, 187). St. Jerome also (Ep. xlix) alludes to fossors as clerici, and a sixth-century chronicle edited by Cardinal Mai (Spicil. Rom., IX, 133) enumerates the (minor) orders of the clergy as ostiarius, fossorius, lector, etc. At first the fossors seem to have received no regular salary, but were paid by individuals for the work accomplished; with the organization of the Church, however, they appear to have been paid from the common treasury. In the fourth century the corporation of fossors were empowered to sell burial spaces, as we learn from inscriptions. For example, in the cemetery of St. Cyriacus two women bought from the fossor Quintus a bisomus, or double grave, retro sanctos (behind, and near, a martyr's tomb), and there are several other references to this practice.

The corporation of fossors probably did not consist merely of the labourers who excavated the galleries of the catacombs; it included also the artists who decorated the tombs, as appears from another allusion in the "Gesta apud Zenophilum" already cited. According to this authority two fossors were brought before the judge (inductis et adplicitis Victore Samsurici et Saturnino fossoribus); when interrogated as to their calling, one replied that he was a fossor, the other that he was an antifex. The latter term at that period included the professions of painter and sculptor. Thus it would seem that this person who is generically referred to as a fossor is also an artist.

Among the representations of fossors in the catacombs the one best known, through Wiseman's "Fabiola", is that of the fossor Diogenes, discovered by Boldetti. The picture, which was seriously damaged in an attempt to remove it from the wall, represents Diogenes with his pick over his right shoulder and a sack, probably containing his midday meal, on his left shoulder, while in his left hand he carries a staff with a light attached. The inscription reads: DIOGENES FOSSOR, IN PACE DEPOSITVS, OCTABV KALENDAS OCTOBRIS (the fossor Diogenes, interred in peace, the eighth day before the calends of October). The oldest fresco of a fossor, or rather of two fossors, dating from the latter half of the second century, is in one of the so-called Sacrament Chapel in the catacomb of St. Callistus. The figures are represented pointing toward three Eucharistic scenes, probably to indicate another of their duties, which was to exclude unauthorized persons from taking part in the liturgical celebrations held occasionally in the cemeteries in commemoration of martyrs. Representations of fossors are usually near the entrance of the subterranean cemeteries.

Notable gravediggers

The shovels of gravediggers at Sarajevo
  • Blues musician James "Sonny Ford" Thomas worked as a gravedigger during his youth in Mississippi.[5]
  • Michael Ridge worked as a gravedigger throughout high school before moving on to have a successful career in the NFL with the New England Patriots.
  • Blues musician John Jackson worked as a gravedigger in Fairfax County, Virginia.[6]
  • British author Sid Smith was briefly employed as a gravedigger.[7]
  • Singer Rod Stewart was employed briefly as a gravedigger.
  • Former Major League Baseball player Richie Hebner worked as a gravedigger run by his father in the off-season.[8]
  • Dave Vanian, then David Letts, worked as a gravedigger before becoming frontman for English punk band, the Damned
  • Joe Strummer of the British punk band The Clash was at one time a gravedigger.
  • Toma Nikolic, a politician and leader of the SPP, was a gravedigger.
  • English musician Pete Doherty worked as a gravedigger.
  • Johnny Lead, vocalist of American metal band Winds Of Plague, worked as a gravedigger
  • Peter Green left the band Fleetwood Mac to become a gravedigger.
  • Mark "Digger" Wagners ATC, Stone Bridge High School

Gravediggers in literature



Because of their association with the subject of death, gravediggers have made notable appearances in literature. Perhaps the most famous of these occurs during Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, where Hamlet and Horatio engage in dialogue with one of the grave-makers (called "First Clown") as he is digging Ophelia's grave. The Gravediggers (or Clowns) make their one and only appearance at the beginning of Act v, Scene i. They enter and begin digging a grave for the newly deceased Ophelia, discussing whether or not she deserves a Christian burial after having taken her own life. When together, the Gravediggers speak mainly in riddles and witty banter regarding death, with the first asking the questions and the second answering.

GRAVEDIGGER: What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?
OTHER: The gallows-maker, for that frame outlives a thousand tenants. (V.i., 38-41) and later in the scene: GRAVEDIGGER: And when you are asked this question next, say “A grave-maker.” The houses that he makes last till doomsday. (V.i., 53-55)

Soon, Hamlet enters and engages in a quick dialog with the first Gravedigger. The scene ends with Hamlet's soliloquies regarding the circle of life prompted by his discovery of the skull of his beloved jester, Yorick. The First Clown unearths Yorick's skull, prompting Hamlet to deliver the memorable lines: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy".[9]

Other instances of gravediggers in literature

One of Barbara Paul's novels was titled First Gravedigger as an allusion to this scene.[10]

Gravedigging has also been used as a theme in detective and crime fiction. Gravedigger Jones is one of two black detectives featured in the "Harlem cycle" of novels by Chester Himes.[11] His partner in the novels is Coffin Ed Johnson and the pair are often involved in violent confrontations. The timbre of these novels is frequently mordant, and a funeral director is a recurring character.

"Gravedigger" as a Marxist metaphor

In the terminology of Marxism, a rising revolutionary class which is destined to overthrow and supplant an earlier ruling class is often referred to as that earlier class' "gravedigger". Thus, the bourgeoisie's historical role was to act as "the gravedigger of feudalism", but by creating a vast exploited working class which is bound to organise and stage a revolution, the bourgeoisie has inevitably created its own "gravedigger".[1]

This metaphorical use of "gravedigger" is already attested in Karl Marx's own writings, and was continued in the same sense by Lenin, Trotsky and many other Marxist theoreticians and leaders.

Gravedigging in gang subculture

In some urban gang subcultures, the use of "gravedigger" as a colloquial term has arisen. Notably, in New York City gang subculture, a greeting consisting of the shout "gravedigg[ah]" has been used to identify gang leaders. [2] While the term denotes the capacity for and execution of homicide, it also refers to the prevalence of gravedigging as a profession among urban youth, a fact referenced by mayor Rudolph Giuliani in his 1999 address to the New York City Council. [3] Often, gang hierarchy is defined by the use of prefixes attached to the 'gravedigger' term, such as the "Geraldo-digger" moniker used to denote the lowest level of gang captaincy. [4] Surprisingly, recent research by noted historian Stephen A. Ambrose has uncovered a link between the 'gravedigger' gang rank system and the use of 'gravedigger' as a Marxist metaphor. "Gang members...often find themselves engorging Marxist propaganda, to the point where members know more about the sins of the late 18th century bourgeoisie than Malcom X." [5]

In Japan

In Japan, gravedigging was one of the "unclean" professions historically allotted to the burakumin class.

Sources and references

  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^
  3. ^ [2]
  4. ^ [3]
  5. ^ [4]

^  Encyclopædia Britannica Book of the Year article on James "Sonny Ford" Thomas, Online 15 October 2005

^  "John Jackson." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 36. Edited by Ashyia Henderson. Gale Group, 2002.

^  "The Pappenheimer Family." World Eras, Vol. 1: European Renaissance and Reformation (1350-1600). Gale Group, 2001.

^  "Sid Smith" Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2005. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center.

^  Cliffs Notes summary of Act 5, Scene 1 in Hamlet

^  Barbara Paul's website

^  "Chester Bomar Himes." Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Vol. 22. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2005

^  Baseball Library entry for Richie Hebner

See also


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