Taking their places at plots selected by pulling names out of a hard hat, 18 two-man teams waited for an official to shout “Start!” before shovelling at the ground to dig a precise, regulation-size grave as quickly as possible.
“I don’t think this is morbid,” the Hungarian Undertakers’ Association’s deputy chairman, Zoltan Juracsik, told Reuters at the national grave-digging contest at the wooded cemetery in Debrecen, Hungary’s biggest city after Budapest.
“This is a profession, and the colleagues who toil in competition today are proud and deserve our respect.”
In less than half an hour, the local team, perhaps enjoying the home advantage, finished their grave first. The stragglers took almost one hour.
The graves were then judged on neatness and whether they complied with the regulation size: 200 cm long, 80 cm wide and 160 cm deep (7 feet by 2 feet 7 inches by 5 feet). The winning team wins a place in an international tournament against Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
The contest is meant to improve the prestige of grave digging and attract young men to a job that must still be done by hand in crowded graveyards where mechanical diggers cannot fit.
One of the competitors, Csaba Halasz, 21, began by taking summer job after high school. Although he graduated with a degree in physical education, he stayed in the business.
“This job chose me,” he said. “It’s hard but it’s worth it. Relatives come and thank me every time. The profession just lured me in.”