This morbidly fascinating Channel 4 documentary followed the work of Peter Mitchell, a professional exhumer. We plant ‘em, he digs ‘em up would perhaps cover the main remit of Peter’s work, and it’s not as easy as it sounds.
He’s been responsible for exhuming around 30,000 bodies during the course of his working life for a variety of reasons. For instance 15,000 of the dearly departed had to be relocated to make way for the cross channel rail link. You could always tell your kids that story next time you’re on Eurostar… should keep them quiet for ten minutes if you point out the tunnel might be haunted by souls who’re angry at being shifted so we can make it to Disneyland Paris in record time.
But in all seriousness, it’s a subject that’s a contentious one this digging up of the dead. It’s also something that’s as mired in red tape as everything else that involves officialdom. One of the cases followed last night was that of a man who wanted his dead parents to be exhumed from their separate resting places to be united in a joint grave in Belgium.
The fact that his parents weren’t together in death was something that he was deeply troubled by, so he’d enlisted Peter’s help to sort out the formalities, such as getting a Church of England faculty which is the all important green light from the church authorities to exhume the bodies.
In addition, we saw Peter overseeing the relocation of bodies in Egypt while a weeping woman watched and expressed her anger at what she saw as the desecration of graves while diggers moved in to help with the mammoth task.
Now, all of this is sombre and serious stuff, but that said, my warped sense of humour – which is always on the look out for a titter, irrespective of my trying to make it behave – picked up on several amusing points. First off, there was the unfortunate choice of phraseology of some of those interviewed last night; one woman was recounting how she’d managed to finally get permission to exhume her mother’s body and relocate it, and, as is the way of these things, she kept saying things like “we had to do a lot of digging to find where she was”. Now she of course meant metaphorical digging through records, but in the context, it conjured up some images that I couldn’t get rid of.
But perhaps the funniest thing was when Peter’s right hand man was interviewed. In a strong Brummy accent, he described how the sights and smells that necessarily occur in their line of work can cause problems.
“It only takes one to start heaving and it sets everybody off.”
Again, the mental imagery was overwhelming and, sorry, but it was funny, especially as he said it so seriously.
However, being the country’s foremost expert on exhumation has some up sides – domino-like heaving aside – such as a salary large enough to enable Peter to own 11 acres of woodland and a rather spiffy motor. But Peter lost my respect a bit when he boasted that he kills grey squirrels because they strip the bark off his trees and nick food from his bird feeders. His ethos of all life is precious and must be respected, even when dead, came a tad unglued there.
But squirrel shooting aside, he’s obviously a man who’s compassionate, but I got the feeling he wouldn’t be very compassionate for free.
If you missed this show, it’s definitely worth catching up on, which you can do here, if only to see what may eventually happen to your own mortal remains, should they happen to lie in the way of a new supermarket or rail link. I just hope nobody starts heaving… it’ll set them all off.