Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Requiescat in pace

Not all writing is on paper and not all written documents are found in libraries. History is alive in graveyards and that's why I've always loved wandering around them. Give me a pile of crumbling tombstones and I'm a happy bunny! The way people bury their dead says almost as much about themselves as it does about those who have died. Going around a 'good' graveyard will give you insights into not just the names of people buried there but also, if you are lucky, one or more of the following: their familial relationships, their religious beliefs, their social standings, their technological knowledge, their cultural symbols and their artistic ideals.

It may seem rather morbid to enjoy a book about graveyards but that’s what I've just done with Peter Stanford's 'How to read a graveyard'. Not a heavy read by any means but more of a meditative travelogue as his sort-of-pilgrimage takes him to ten sites: the Scavi in the Vatican, purportedly the grave of St Peter; the catacombs of St Callixtus in Rome; St Margaret’s, Burnham Norton, where he hopes to be buried himself; Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh; Père-Lachaise in Paris (where Oscar Wilde’s and Jim Morrison’s celebrity tombs attract devotees); the misnamed “English” or “Protestant” cemetery in Rome (for Shelley, Keats and the pyramid of Gaius Cestius); Paddington Old Cemetery; the Deane Road Jewish Cemetery in Liverpool; the Commonwealth war graves at Etaples; Notre Dame de Lorette; Ayette and Thiepval; and finally the Chiltern Woodland Burial Park, a modern eco-friendly “forest of remembrance”. He makes no claim to it being a comprehensive survey but it did strike me as rather perverse not to visit Highgate cemetery, yet succumb to the tourist trap that is Père-Lachaise.

His central premise is that our contemporary rituals tend to sanitise death and distance us from our own inevitable fate. Reading graveyards helps us to find out how previous generations dealt with the Grim Reaper and, in some way, help us to face up to him/her ourselves. I'm not too sure about that last bit but there are pleasing nuggets on nearly every page. We learn that Dr Spock’s greeting on Star Trek derives from Jewish blessing; that British wolves died out after graveyards became walled, presumably because they were thus deprived of food; that Woking cemetery once boasted its own branch line, the London Necropolis Railway. A book worth reading for the funereal trivia alone.

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