Digging their way to the top, 18 two-man teams of Hungarian gravediggers displayed their skills Friday for a place in a regional championship to be held in Slovakia later this year.
Participants in the contest held in plot 37A of the public cemetery of the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen were being judged on their speed but also getting points for style — the look of the finished grave mounds.
Janos Jonas, 63, who teamed with his son, Csaba, saw the competition run by the Hungarian Association of Cemetery Maintainers and Operators as a sort of last hurrah as he was just a few weeks from retirement.
“We didn’t have to prepare in any special way because we do this every day,” said Jonas, from the nearby village of Hosszupalyi. “This is good earth, quite soft and humid, just right for the event.”
Organizer Iren Kari said they hoped the race would help increase respect and recognition for the gravediggers’ profession and attract more people to the job, which is under threat, for example by the increasing popularity of cremations.
“These men see death every day. Sometimes people joke about them while they work, but gravediggers are human, too,” said Kari, who is advocating for gravediggers to get access to psychological support to better handle the strains of the job. “We are having difficulties finding replacements for our retiring employees. Young people today don’t like to dig and work.”
All contestants had shovels, rakes, axes and pickaxes to dig graves 0.8 meters (2 feet 7 inches) wide, 2 meters (6 feet 6 inches) long and 1.6 meters (5 feet 3 inches) deep, but no two teams seemed to use the same technique.
Some preferred to dig simultaneously, while others had one man digging while the other formed the dirt into neat piles around the gravesite. For safety reasons, like the collapse of a grave wall, only one member of each team was allowed to work in the grave after reaching a depth of 1 meter (3 feet 3 inches).
After every team finished digging — the fastest time was just over 34 minutes — there was a short rest and then the dirt was shoveled back into the graves, each topped with a burial mound about the size of a large casket.
“We take special pride in the burial mounds, on which we place the flowers and wreaths at the end of the funeral,” Jonas said, relating how while drinking on the job was strictly forbidden, relatives often gave gravediggers a bottle of palinka, a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy, as a gratuity.
Some teams wore white shirts, ties and elegant vests, while others were in t-shirts or overalls. One pair wore plastic coveralls, but everyone was sweating by the end of the race on a warm spring day.
“The hardest part of the job is to deal with the mourners,” said Debrecen gravedigger Laszlo Toth. “But it’s a good job, with good colleagues and a good environment.”
Toth, who won the event with teammate Janos Racz, will compete in a regional race planned to be held in November in Trencin, Slovakia.