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40 years in a grave profession

John Blades, gravedigger, builder, sexton and contractor, will be celebrating 40 years connected to the funeral business this year.

The founder and owner of Blades Builders and Sexton Contractors, based in Salterforth, Lancashire, John has helped to bury thousands of people over the years, including celebrities Russell Harty and Fred Trueman, but he still remembers vividly the first grave he dug.

“It was a right hot day,” he said. “13 April 1973 at St Mary-le-Ghyll Church, Barnoldswick. He was called Walter Bailey. I was only a young fella and it was a big responsibility.”

John had started out in the building trade and then, after marrying Stacey and starting a family of three boys, began helping out at a nearby monumental mason's business – digging graves at three local churches.

“A well-made grave is a great solace to the family mourners and it used to take six hours of hard work to dig,” he said. “They’re all dug by machine now, with health and safety rules and certificates.”

John has gradually expanded his skills – and his own business, which now incorporates repatriation services, with customers from as far afield as Portsmouth and Scotland. Two of his sons now work with him.

He now covers 57 churches, three green burial grounds and two cemeteries, across an area that includes the Yorkshire Dales as far as Bradford and down to the Lancashire/ Yorkshire border.

"Some of the graveyards we service up the Dales are in some of the most beautiful scenery in the world,” he said.

Some work – especially vault building – takes him all over the country and he also helps out at Skipton Crematorium as a crematorium technician.

But his skills don’t stop there. He also keeps grave plans for most of the graveyards and cemeteries and records of everybody his family business has cared for – by name, funeral director, location etc.

“People come from all over the world to trace their departed relatives and they might want to visit a certain grave,” said John. “I’m the one who can tell them where it is."

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