Gravely oversubscribed Derry cemetery nears expiry date

‘Unless you die in the next four or five years, you’re not getting buried in this one’

Derry City Cemetery foreman Shaun Boyd with other gravediggers. Photograph: Trevor McBride

Derry City Cemetery foreman Shaun Boyd with other gravediggers. Photograph: Trevor McBride

 

After 165 years and more than 80,000 burials, Derry’s City Cemetery is finally running out of space.

The graveyard – the final resting place for war veterans, IRA men and even a hymn writer – will close to new burials within the next seven years.

Yet such is the cemetery’s place in the fabric of the city that the prospect of resting elsewhere for eternity is causing concern.

“You do get people coming saying ‘I don’t want buried in the new cemetery,’ ” says foreman Shaun Boyd, “but unless you die in the next four or five years you’re not getting buried in this one.”

The geography of the cemetery, on a steep hill in the Creggan area, makes for an impressive history lesson.

At the bottom of the cemetery, imposing memorials and mausoleums commemorate the city grandees of Victorian times; adjacent to them is the paupers’ plot, separated in death as in life.

Further up the hill lie those killed in the two World Wars, the two Republican plots and the graves of the Bloody Sunday victims. Among the more recent burials are those of Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness.

To this day, each death is recorded by hand in bound registers, kept in a safe in the cemetery office. Clerical officer Dawn Nicell pulls out the first volume and points to the cemetery’s first burial, that of 10-month-old Robert McClelland on December 12th, 1853.

“I always think it’s sad, that the first one was a wee baby.”

Her father Mickey, along with Stephen Leslie, Mickey Duddy and Kieran Gallagher, are among the team of gravediggers.

“We all have family buried here,” says Mickey Nicell, “so we understand.”

“People do worry about not getting a place here, and it’s because all their families are here,” adds Gallagher.

‘Freaky’ profession

Of the gravediggers, Leslie has the most experience. When he began working in the cemetery 31 years ago, every grave was dug by hand. “I never had to go the gym anyway,” he laughs.

What do people think of his choice of profession? “Freaky. When my wains [children] were young, they used to say, ‘Don’t tell anybody you dig graves, Daddy.’

For Leslie and the others, their satisfaction comes from doing the job well, and from the people they meet in the cemetery.

“You’d be doing a job too for people in a vulnerable state of their grieving,” says Boyd, “and the men make sure that’s done as solemnly as possible, with as much respect as possible.”

“You get to know people,” says Leslie. “They bury their husband or their wife and you get to know them, and you’d always chat to them when they’re over visiting the graves. Then the sad thing is over a period of time, is that they then pass away so you lose that friendship.”

Though a place of the dead, on an average day it is also full of the living. On Cemetery Sunday, held each June to bless the graves, the cemetery is so busy a traffic management plan has to be put in place; Republican commemorations are held each Easter Sunday and Monday.

Guided tours

Seamus Breslin, from the Friends of Derry City Cemetery, runs guided tours.

“To me you have almost the whole history of the world in it,” he says. “Groups are amazed by the atmosphere – you can just feel it.”

Among the more unusual graves he shows visitors are those of Cecil Frances Alexander,who wrote All Things Bright and Beautiful, and her eldest son, one of more than 500 victims of the German torpedoing of the RMS Leinster in October 1918.

Also buried in the cemetery are Derry’s only casualty of the Easter Rising, Charles Love Crockett, who had joined the 36th (Ulster) Division and was about to leave for France when the Rising broke out. He also shows visitors the grave of Susan Morgan, the Derry victim of the 1981 Stardust nightclub fire in Dublin.

“This is a living, working cemetery,” says Breslin, “and I don’t think we’ll ever again have such a beautiful site for a cemetery, but also one with such an ambience, such activity – and such a view – as we have here.”

The likelihood is that a new cemetery will be on the outskirts of the city. Derry City and Strabane District Council has begun the search for a new site.

But even once the new cemetery opens, existing plots in the City Cemetery will continue to be reopened for secondary burials for another 40 years potentially.