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Graveyard caretaker Jim Emery forced out of his home at Hollybrook Cemetery in Southampton
IT is probably not the job for most people, but one that has been Jim Emery’s pride and joy for 26 years.
The grandfather-of-three has been the long-serving public face of Southampton ’s largest cemetery.
He has been available day and night as a friendly face and listening ear to grieving relatives or visitors searching for family or famous headstones among its 53,000 graves.
Throughout that time Jim has made his family home the lodge house at the gates of Hollybrook Cemetery as part of his appointment as the city’s cemetery superintendent.
Jim, 60, had been looking forward to spending the rest of his working days at the lodge with his wife Lorayne, and their six-year old pet dog Honey.
But after a total of 42 years of loyal service, much of it beyond the call of duty, he is now facing eviction after the city council “deleted” his job.
Under council budget cuts Jim will be made redundant and dismissed on October 5 and will lose the four-bed house that came with his job for a nominal rent.
Jim said it came as a “real kick in the teeth” just a few years before he planned to retire.
Over the years he has greeted thousands of visitors, and has become well respected by clergy and funeral directors as well as the traveller community who use the cemetery.
He was even entrusted by Benny Hill to keep an eye on his parents’ graves before the comedian himself was laid to rest in the cemetery.
Jim said he had “reluctantly” accepted his job was gone but had offered to continue to open and close the cemetery gates and nearby toilets and maintain a presence in the cemetery to deter vandals, without payment, if the council will let him continue to live at the lodge at a reduced rent.
But council chiefs refused the offer and the Emerys now face an uncertain future in a smaller property somewhere else in the city.
The decision has sparked worldwide support for Jim.
An Internet campaign condemning the council decision has already notched up over 1,900 supporters and its website page received 90,000 visitors from around the world.
Council chiefs have also been deluged with angry emails calling for a rethink.
Jim’s daughter, Lisa Whitmore, said her parents were devastated.
“My dad is the most private person. The only time I’ve ever seen him show any emotion was when I got married.
“But this has broken him inside. He’s never known anything different. They’ve just thrown him in the rubbish bin.”
Lisa, 36, said that to add insult to injury the council had offered to redeploy him as a gravedigger – a job he was doing when he was 18.
Jim said he had also been offered positions as a traffic warden, a CCTV operator and a school caretaker, but didn’t feel he was suitable.
“I’m 60. I’ve worked here all my life. This is all I know”, he said.
Lorayne, 64, who works at the nearby Spire hospital, said her husband had dedicated his working – and a lot of his home – life to the people of Southampton.
She said: “We’ve lived and breathed this place for 26 years. We’ve been privileged to live here. We’ve looked after the house, looked after the visitors. We are the face of the council.
“As far as Jim is aware there are no plans for the house so why throw us out when he can still contribute and is still willing to help with the upkeep of this very special place.”
The council is pressing ahead with its plans to rehouse the Emerys and has offered the equivalent of six-months’ salary – around £11,000 – as a redundancy package.
The couple have been shown a two-bed first floor flat at an old people’s housing scheme, but politely declined it.
Mr Emery’s job was cut in this year’s council budget, set by the previous Conservative administration in February.
It will save the council’s bereavement services around £25,000 a year.
A Southampton City Council spokesman said: “With the use of new technology and the necessary presence of other council staff at burials and at other times to maintain the grounds, it was decided that the service could be maintained in the absence of a cemetery supervisor.
“This difficult decision was taken against an urgent need for the council to save money. We have worked with this member of staff to explore opportunities for redeployment and continue to do so.”
She added a number of options were being considered for the future use of the cemetery lodge.
Cabinet member for environment and transport Councillor Asa Thorpe is due to meet Mr Emery on Monday to discuss “future employment and accommodation opportunities”.