Maria Brancati – You are only as good as your team

#YesSheCan speaks to Maria Brancati about her career as one of the few female grave diggers in the UK and what motivates and inspires her.

I would describe myself as a jack of all trades, I am creatively curious and have always had the ability to turn my hand to anything. I love to learn new skills and I like to experiment and this has led me along a varied career path. My creative nature meant that I originally followed an art and design path, studying computer animation at university. After a first-class honours degree, I found work in graphic design and during this time I also painted and produced artwork on commission and exhibited my work. 

Feeling the need for a change I followed another of my passions, I decided to retrain as a chef and started my career in food. A creative outlet using a different medium. My cheffing career spanned roughly a decade, I worked through the ranks in numerous establishments, from commis chef to chef manager. In my free time I began to write cookery books which I then self-published. My love for food and its provenance and my family’s farming heritage had a massive part in my next decision, which was to train in horticulture. After gaining horticultural qualifications, I made the leap from catering to gardening and was lucky to quickly find part time work, with a lady gardener. She turned out to be a great friend and inspirational woman.

This job then led me to apply for a position on the local council, as a seasonal gardener and from here, after several twists and turns, I finally got to where I am now. 

A grave digger!! 

I work for bereavement services in my local authority and have been a grave digger since July 2019. My official title is bereavement services assistant. I am the first ever female gravedigger to work for my local authority. I am aware of only one other female gravedigger in the country, so I am part of a very exclusive club! My job involves preparing burial plots for the deceased, digging graves in any of the 5 cemeteries in my local authority area. We mainly use a JCB to excavate and then finish the grave by hand. We still dig full depth graves by hand, where logistics means we cannot get machinery into the site.

Digging graves is a skilled job and so many things affect the excavation. I am by no means an expert, I am only new to this game. Two of my fellow colleagues who have over 50 years experience between them, have forgotten more about the job than I will probably know. Ground conditions, the soil type, the area to excavate, the size, depth, weather and location, all play a massive part in getting a grave plot ready for a funeral to take place. Graves can collapse, fill with water, be full of tree roots and land drains. Most graves are dug to a depth of 5 foot 6 and this will accommodate 2 coffins, where the land permits. Other areas will only allow a 4-foot burial, taking one coffin. In past years cemeteries would bury 10 coffins deep. When you consider these graves were dug by hand, it is a scary prospect of being so far down in the ground, with only a ladder to escape. Luckily, we are a bit more health and safety conscious now, but accidents can still happen, so we need to take extra care when digging graves.

Depending on the time of the funeral and the time of year, we can dig a grave out a few hours before the funeral or up to a day before and shore it, using metal supports, to make it safe and ready for the funeral. It can be very hard, dirty, smelly work and there are not many people who would choose this job, I think most people fall into it. I don’t think a female, university art graduate, is your typical image of a gravedigger! At least not yet.

As well as burials of coffins, we bury or scatter ashes and we also look after the horticultural side of the cemeteries and crematorium grounds, from pruning to grass cutting to maintaining graves and rose beds. I am also trained as a crematorium technician, our small team is being trained to substitute one another, as our work force diminishes and public purses are forever tightened, we have less people on the ground. Like most local authorities today, we have less and less resources and the larger teams of people seen in past years, no longer exist. Multitasking is the norm.

My job involves carrying out burials in the 5 cemeteries that our team look after.  Some days, we must go from cemetery to cemetery, in different parts of town to carry out burials.

The past 18 months have been extraordinary, the pandemic has affected everyone. As part of the bereavement services team, working on the front line, as a key worker, we have experienced the unfortunate side effects of Covid 19. Along with my colleagues we have had to change our methods of working and provide a safe and high level of service, even in the most challenging and difficult circumstances. We have seen our workload unfortunately double and we have carried out 50% more burials than last year, with less team members, in hard, uncomfortable conditions, which have affected us, both mentally and physically.

We work in all weathers and the winter, our busiest time, comes with the ice, snow and rain. The ground is frozen solid and sometimes the JCB cannot break through. The soil boards we use, freeze together and become so heavy. Freezing fingers and toes are a daily occurrence. The rain soaks us, even with waterproofs we get wet, cold, covered in slop. Graves become flooded and need pumping out. The job becomes arduous, it is a mental and physical challenge.

We deal with the public on a daily basis and this brings its own challenges. Often dealing with grieving, upset, angry and highly emotional people is stressful and upsetting. Unfortunately when you work for a local authority some of the public think they own you. We have at times been vilified in public and on social media for simply doing our job. We deal with antisocial behaviour quite often. Unfortunately the pandemic appears to have made people less patient and less understanding. 

On the flip side we have people who come into the cemetery often and we have built relationships with them. Chatting on a daily basis. For some we are the only friendly face they might see that day and talking with them might be their only contact, this tends to be older, widowed souls but not exclusively. We help them and they help us by giving us encouragement and good comments about the work we are doing.

So, in a typical day I can be acting as a grave digger, a jcb driver, friendly face, a counsellor, a gardener  the list is endless.

I didn’t choose this career, I think it chose me. I never intended to become a gravedigger and I would never have dreamt of driving a JCB and having to get into muddy, smelly holes in the ground. I needed a full-time job and I had worked as a seasonal gardener in the cemetery. I had helped the gravedigging squad on occasion and the job came up, I applied and got it. It has been a rollercoaster ride all along the way. I am still learning lots, my colleagues have helped me and continue to guide me. Gravedigging you could say, is in my blood. My grandfather was custodian and gravedigger of a cemetery, in Italy, where my mum and dad were born. So maybe it was meant to be.

 I am a religious person, my family and faith have taught me to respect the dead as much as the living. As I have carried out my work, I have realised even more about what an important role it is and I am privileged to do it. Working in bereavement services is special and poignant and handling sensitive, upsetting and difficult situations is part and parcel of this role, but I strive to deal with things in an honest, open and caring way. Looking after peoples loved ones at one of the most vulnerable time of their lives, is a hard but rewarding task.

Gravediggers are overlooked, as is the whole bereavement services area. Death is still a taboo subject and not many people want to think about it, never mind talk about it openly.  It will affect us all and I hope that this blog and my words will highlight this fact. For people to learn about bereavement services would be beneficial. Many people having lost a loved one, have no idea what to do, or what happens, unless of course they have had to deal with it before in their lives. They might get some information off a funeral director regarding the dates, times, places, but not about the actual hands on process, of burying or cremating the dead. I think talking about it, can make the process easier and anything that can help at this distressing part of someone’s life, is a positive. The burial process does not end when the coffin is in the grave. When the family leave, we backfill the grave using the soil excavated earlier. We take extra care when backfilling with a JCB, as most coffins today are made from cheap wood and can break very easily.( That’s something a funeral director will not tell you!) Sometimes we backfill by hand when we cannot get in with a JCB. Some people like to backfill their own graves. Muslims, travelling communities and other cultures. After a few weeks the soil will settle and sometimes the graves need topping up, where extra soil is put on the grave. It takes roughly 6 months for the soil to settle properly and headstones are usually applied by stone masons after this time. If it is a lawn grave, we usually turf it after a year, people do not realise that you cannot do this straight away. It’s amazing how many people expect a grave to be immaculate as soon as the burial has taken place, like something they might see in a movie. A beneficial future project for our service would be to make a documentary, to show what really happens, simply to help people learn and understand. Ignorance and lack of understanding is a major factor in why complaints are made in our sector.

I got to where I am now as I worked as a seasonal gardener for my local authority, for 2 and a half years and in that time, I was given the task of looking after the grounds of one of our cemeteries, roughly 23 acres. This included gardening, grounds maintenance, developing new projects, implementing ideas, landscaping, looking after the remembrance gardens, numerous rockeries and rose beds. Working from April to October. I reapplied for a position the following year in March. I was re-employed and continued this role for a second year. At the end of my second year, I looked-for full-time gardening work and after being unsuccessful, I reapplied for a third year as a seasonal. In my third year, the opening in the gravedigging team came up. I applied and got the job, a full-time position.

I have faced numerous challenges to get here, unfortunately having to deal with male colleagues, who did not like the fact that a female came into the team, was a large challenge. I was told I would not be able to do the job, that I was not strong enough, that a woman could not do it. I had to deal with jealousy, chauvinism and bullies.  I was lucky to find some allies in those who believed in me and I aligned myself with them, it helped in this situation. If it had not been for the support of the few good men, I would have given up.  This is an unfortunate effect of women working in a predominately male environment. I know I am not the first and unfortunately do not think I will be the last.

Mental, emotional and physical challenges have all been part of the process. Dealing with death on a daily basis and seeing bereaved families can have a massive impact. The physicality of the role has been challenging at times. Carrying out more work with less team members is difficult. Learning to drive JCB’s quad bikes, dumper trucks, mini diggers, use chainsaws, use various equipment and be competent with them has been challenging but rewarding. 

I got to where I am now by working hard and being determined. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do the job and rise to any challenges. I wanted to show those who criticised me and those who believed in me, that I was more than capable of doing a good job. Having people who believed in me and who helped and supported me, made a huge difference. Seeing the positive changes, I was making and the comments and great feedback from the public, made me proud of what I was doing and made me want to strive for them. My blood, sweat, injuries and many tears, were part of overcoming those setbacks, but that makes me savour my progress even more.

What gave me the determination and drive to succeed was my faith, my character, my family, my attitude, the hard knocks that I had faced before, my work ethic, my passion, my belief in myself. I needed the job and the money and this was also a key motivator. The belief that I could do a good job, be a positive member of the team and add something to the team. Seeing the difference I was making and seeing the feedback from the public.

I am a member of a very exclusive club. I am the first female gravedigger in my council and one of very few in the UK. I am just one example for women who want to work in a male dominated industry and each time I attend a funeral, I dig a grave, I drive the JCB, I show that. If I can do it any woman can. Many people do a double take when they see me and it makes them think outside the box. If women see me I hope it inspires them to think they can do things outside of the norm. I  have hopefully opened the door for other women to follow my lead in this career. I bring a different perspective and feel to the role.  

My biggest achievement in life is being a decent human being. A good daughter, sister, aunt and friend. Being a  genuine person, striving to do my best and help others along the way, means a lot to me. If I continue to achieve this throughout my life, I will be happy and blessed. Professionally, being the first female gravedigger in my local authority and knowing the path I have had to take to get there is a big achievement. Being able to succeed in all the career paths I have chosen to pursue is a massive achievement also. 

The biggest lesson I’ve learnt along the way is that nothing that matters comes easily, you must go through challenges and sacrifices to get something that is worth it, but those challenges are often blessings in disguise.

I am as far as I am aware one of very few female gravediggers in the uk. If there are other female gravediggers reading this, please contact me as I would appreciate your experiences and support. As I write this, another woman has joined our bereavement team, maybe things can change, maybe I’ve helped that change. 

When you think of a gravedigger, a woman does not come to mind. It is unchartered territory. Being female has not meant that I cannot do the job, but people have questioned it. The job is a very physical role and you must be strong. I think it takes a certain type of woman to do it and want to do it. I have always been a tom boy type of girl and a hands on type of woman, I didn’t mind getting my hands dirty. Some people can’t see how a girl would want to do this job, there must be some reason behind it. If a woman is strong some people cannot handle that. Whether it be physically, mentally or both. People want to be able to put you into a box, to categorise you and make sense of it in their mind, when they cannot and find someone out of the ordinary, they usually revert to the negative and try to belittle you. 

Outside of work my hobbies are cooking, gardening, and growing my own fruit and vegetables and preserving them, I like to travel, to read, to listen to music, to go for walks in the countryside, to visit gardens, to write books ( my latest is aptly called “ memoirs of a female gravedigger “ ) To do crafts, to upcycle, watch and play sport, to play the saxophone, to spend time with my family.

The mantra I live my life by is ‘Be kind, be you, be grateful.’

Three tips I would give to young females starting their careers would be: Be you, speak up, set boundaries.

The best bit of advice I have ever been given is  your health is your greatest wealth, be grateful, focus on the things you have in life  and not what you don’t. When you wake up in the morning Thank God for another day because it is a privilege denied to many.

I have buried babies, centenarians, men, women, children of all ages, races, colours and creeds. Our lives are a gift, each day is precious, live love and forgive like there is no tomorrow. No one is guaranteed another day. Working in this role reinforces that point everyday.

My mother is my greatest inspiration. She has faced adversity and had to sacrifice so many things, but she has always been the kindest and most steadfast person I know. She has kept going no matter what and has been my rock and the heart of my family. Nothing fazes her. Her faith is amazing and her strength too. She has set a wonderful example. She is humble, kind and has the patience of a saint. She has made the world a better place simply for being born. 

My key motivators are doing a good job, helping others, making a difference, my faith, making the people who love and care for me proud. Helping to make even a small positive difference for women, motivates me to remain in a male dominated occupation. I hope I can use my experience and sacrifices as a source of inspiration for other females in this area of work. I know there are so many women trying to make strides in harsh working environments and we need to share our stories to empower one another, because it is not easy. There are institutions that give lip service to female empowerment strategies, helping and welcoming women into the workforce but continuing to marginalise them. They are seen to be doing it.  We are better when we work together not when we compete with each other.   If only organisations realise what women can bring to the table, to benefit their teams. Any organisation that empowers their employees, whether male or female is on a winning track. Any organisation is only as good as their employees. Give them the best and you will get the best out of them. 

For women to achieve a prominent role in a male dominated workplace, they firstly must gain successful entry. Trying to promote women’s entry and success into male dominated occupations like mine, requires listening to the women that have already achieved it or tried it. This is important and can impact greatly on any future systems of working. Feedback will provide organisations with important information on developing workable strategies and gender policies. They will need to take action to ensure success and sustainability of the co-existence of males and females in male dominated areas without dominance or discrimination. First-hand evidence gained from experience is the best way to make organizations better at getting women to feel confident enough to apply for the jobs advertised and to feel like they will be looked after. For women to achieve more prominent roles, they need to be able to get into the basic roles in the first place. In my situation this has never happened before, so my experience should be beneficial,  for my local authority, and any organisation that is male dominated with a limited female workforce. Women need resources that facilitate their career resilience and perseverance in male dominated areas. It worries me that not all women have the resilience and determination to make it, in a male dominated work world and might be put off, because they don’t have the right support, or other women to look up to.

My advice for women aiming for leadership positions is believe in yourself and stay true to your vision. Work hard and let your actions speak volumes. If you are honest and genuine people will know and whether they like it or not or tell you or not, you will be respected. 

One key leadership lesson I learnt along the way is ‘You are only as good as your team’

What I would say to me 16 year old self – You are amazing, you can do anything, don’t worry about what others think, you can say no, don’t waste time worrying about things you can’t change, don’t waste time on people who don’t deserve it, set boundaries, tell people to F* off when they deserve it. Don’t be scared to let go, to walk away, don’t waste time on negative people, stay well away. Listen to your gut instinct. Look at people’s actions, they will tell you all you need to know about them, words are cheap, actions speak louder than words. Don’t be scared to make mistakes. A mistake or failure does not define you. Love yourself and value yourself. You are enough. You are loved more than you know.

Get in contact!

IF you want to....