Venture through the, rather austere looking, huge black Victorian wrought iron gates on Cemetery Road in York, and you may be in for a surprise. You could be forgiven for thinking you had walked straight into the pages of “The Secret Garden” by Frances Eliza Hodgson Burnett. Such is the hidden beauty that lies within, as the road name gives its secret away, York Cemetery.

Whilst the Cemetery is administered by York Cemetery Trust with the support of the Friends of York Cemetery when it comes to Cemetery business there is one name that crops up time and again. That name is Wendy Harrison and as Cemetery Manager, the buck stops quite firmly with her. She runs a very tight ship and she is the “go-to” person for anything Cemetery related.

Quiet Respect

The respect Wendy earns from her staff, colleagues, industry professionals and the general public alike is phenomenal. In short, what Wendy says, goes – such is their trust in her judgement.

It is with good reason that Wendy has such respect and reputation – the Cemetery is simply beautiful and that is in no small part down to Wendy’s consistent management and the imposition of Cemetery rules. It is clear for all to see that Wendy and her team take enormous pride in a good job well done.

I was curious to have a little insight into a typical day in the life of a Cemetery Manager. We caught up earlier this week.

Striking the Right Balance

“The main aim of my job is to keep accurate burial and memorial records, ensure the grounds, lawns and paths are maintained while keeping the right balance to encourage wildlife.”  Wendy tells me, she continues: “The most important part of my job is striking the right chord with families.  Many, even though they live in York have never passed through the gates.  It is hard to explain but most Families actually leave here smiling, after choosing a plot for a loved one, and having a walk around. The Cemetery is not a sad or bleak place, it is full of life and nature, truly peaceful and serene.”

Variety Is the Spice of Life!

I asked Wendy what a typical day was like for her, “The job is very varied, and no two days are ever really the same, depending on the weather and burial business. We have a staff meeting every morning, to establish what we will be doing for the day. if I am not tied to the computer doing post burial documents, memorial permits and burial bookings, I do site checks to ensure tasks are been carried out as agreed.”

Making Friends and Leaving a Legacy

The next question for Wendy is which parts of her job she enjoyed most and which she found most rewarding. She answered: “People and nature are what I love about the Cemetery, I have my regulars who call in every week. They have become friends, the grounds are incredibly important to them, they soon let you know if they are unhappy, although the clearances, planting and memorial restoration work is very much appreciated by them.” Wendy continued, “The most rewarding thing for me is having the vision to improve. Plan it and watch it start to bloom, things take time here, in years to come my kids can say my Mum organized that, or she had that repaired.”

Supporting Families During Their Darkest Hours

Which parts of her job did she find most difficult? “Children’s funerals are just so difficult. You must completely remove yourself from any emotion, not in a hard way, but you must show strength and support at their darkest hour. I did a funeral for a baby who died when he was a few months old, the Mum carried the little wicker coffin by herself, she talked to her son every step, telling him about the sunny day and bird song. It was like she was taking him to bed. When we got to grave-side and she gently placed him there, all I can remember is how the wicker basket had cut into her arms, I hope the imprint it made gave her some peace for the few days it lasted.”

It Should not Happen to a Cemetery Manager

I wondered if Wendy had any amusing or funny incidents she felt she could share with our readers? “We had an eco-funeral which was a bit was bizarre, the lady chose her plot and said she wanted to arrive on a bike trailer. She had arrived in it that day, it had been set up with a chair for her. On the day of the burial, she did indeed arrive in a shroud. Could you imagine if she had rolled out!!!

Another one was a young lad about 10 years old who was messing around the edge of the grave when he fell in and landed on the coffin of his Grandma, his siblings laughed and made fun of him as he tried to get out, he received a clip round the ear from his Dad. Lastly, I was doing an ashes interment with a funeral director who was quite well built, as he knelt to put the ashes in, his jacket split all the way up the back. It was one of those moments you just looked at the family, fortunately, they found it very funny.”

Renovations and Racing!

What about Wendy’s leisure time? What are her favourite pursuits? “I bought a house in 2018 which needs a lot of work, so between that and walking my dogs and enjoying my fabulous grandchildren it takes up most of my free time. However, motorbike racing is something I love, Valentino Rossi is my hero. I hope to go to the World super-bikes in Portugal in September.”

A Word from the Wise

What piece of advice from Wendy for those struggling to cope with the loss of a loved one? “Everybody deals with grief differently, I do say if you’re having a bad day just cry, don’t beat yourself up about it, it can take years – if ever – to get over losing somebody, that’s why you loved them so much.”

You can find more details about York Cemetery here.

© 2020 Text: Sharon Malone.  Images: Rob Harris

2 thoughts on “The Secret Hidden Behind The Big, Black, Wrought Iron Gates

  1. Now that the government has allowed parks to reopen again, I feel it is time again to open the cemetery up for mourners, even if it is only a couple of hours a week or over the weekend. I had a grave side service for my husband a few weeks ago and it adds to my grief not to be allowed to visit his grave. Many other cemeteries have not closed at all. There is plenty of space for social distancing. Please reconsider your decision to close and have a thought for us who get so much pleasure visiting.

    1. Thank you for commenting Marilyn. Firstly I am so sorry for your loss. Just to be clear I am not employed by the Cemetery but do work in an around the Cemetery when it is open. The guidelines surrounding Cemeteries are a little unclear at the moment and I know that the Cemetery Trust is seeking guidance and further clarity on this. They are open for Funerals and Burials. I also know that Fulford Cemetery is still at this time closed to visitors and taking the same stance as York Cemetery. I have made Wendy aware of your comment and she asks could you please contact her? Her telephone number is 01904 610578.

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