Tombstone Stories

‘An everyday ramble round a graveyard subliminally corrects any tendency to assume ourselves immortal’

There’s nothing quite to rival a walk round a medieval English churchyard for putting the world into perspective. At least that is how it feels when standing in one: not gloomy, not morbid but vigorously full of life. Places like St Margaret’s churchyard, Burnham Norton, on the north coast of Norfolk.

It clusters round an ancient church with a distinctive round Saxon tower, rare elsewhere but common in this county, and looks out from its ridge, past a windmill, to the North Sea. People have been worshipping on this spot since before the Norman Conquest, and that brings benefits that aren’t immediately obvious. It links visitors into a human chain. “You are here to kneel,” as T.S. Eliot wrote in “Little Gidding”, “where prayer has been valid.” As the wind from the Arctic blows through the churchyard, across the sand-dunes, marshes and creeks, it carries with it a gossamer thin coating of salt and the soothing scent of water that can clarify otherwise jumbled thoughts. 

There are no “big names” here to attract what might loosely be termed cemetery tourists — those who troop round graveyards such as Highgate, Kensal Green, Père Lachaise in Paris or Zentralfriedhof in Vienna to stand next to the last resting places of the famous. Famous names, though, can be a distraction. They change the nature of a graveyard and make it into something more akin to a museum. By contrast, all of us, somewhere reasonably close at hand, have a churchyard, best of all an ancient one, that is open all hours, free-of-charge, and 99 per cent of the time pretty empty, save for the dead and the occasional dog-walker.

As I found out when I was landed with a dog that needs walking (my children, persistent lobbyists for this addition to family ranks, broke their pledges to take care of this practical matter faster than any politician discarding the election manifesto). So I headed to my nearest open green space, our local graveyard, and out of those enforced daily outings, an unfashionable fascination grew.

I started wondering, variously, when and why we had started burying people in boxes in the ground, how the etiquette of tombstones and epitaphs and their symbols have arisen, and what all of that revealed about how attitudes to death itself have changed over the ages. Out of the questions grew a plan to visit a series of graveyards, ancient and new, around Europe, in search of answers, and eventually to record it in a book, How to Read a Graveyard (Bloomsbury Continuum, £16.99), that has turned out part travelogue, part history, and part practical guide. Among the stopping points on my itinerary was St Margaret’s. I feel so at home here that I keep coming back. I even think I’d like one day to make it permanent — to be buried here. 

My most immediate given reason when I voice this thought demonstrates how illogical our attitude remains to death. It’s because, I hear myself saying, I like the view — but of course I won’t be in any position, six feet under, to savour it. There are other reasons, though. It comes back to that chain of human history and hope.

Here, for centuries corpses wrapped only in a shroud or winding sheet, knotted at top and bottom, would have been delivered to the gate I step in through today. They would have been transported here not in hearses, elaborate coffins or “private ambulances”, the modern packaging we put round them to distance the rest of us from death, but on a bier by family and friends who wanted to consign them to the eternal care and protection of the Church, as symbolised by the priest who waited there to receive them. 

I was 38 before I saw a dead body, partly the blessing of growing up in a generation that hasn’t lived through a world war. And I only saw one then because, wrong-footed by grief, I mistook a funeral director’s invitation to “view” my mother in the chapel of rest for a summons. In a converted garage behind the parlour — the coy Victorian language persists — the chapel was filled with tanks of goldfish (presumably because the emphasis was on forgetting the pain of grief as quickly as possible). Hideously made-up, a slack lower lip attached to the rest of the familiar face by a clumsy stitch, my mother’s body was sanitised, odourless, thanks to the formaldehyde, and deserted. It was a shock, but at least I knew for sure she’d gone.

At its simplest, an everyday ramble round a graveyard subliminally corrects any tendency to assume ourselves immortal, a trait that has blighted humankind all the way back to Achilles in ancient Greece, and before him Gilgamesh in Babylonia, but which is arguably more pronounced than ever in our scientific, secular and sceptical times when even talk of death is taboo.

With the decline of organised religion, we no longer seem to have the language, let alone the ritual and context, with which to contemplate the day that will inevitably come when we won’t be here any longer. We prefer instead to fret about our life insurance — what Philip Larkin labelled “the costly aversion of the eyes from death”.

As an antidote, casual cemetery-visiting (not the right phrase for it, but I’ve struggled and failed to find one to describe those I have met on my travels who have developed the habit) is anything but costly. It even has proven benefits this side of death. 

A 2008 study by social psychologist Matthew Gailliot of Florida State University attempted to quantify how visiting a cemetery, or living next door to one, affects behaviour. Actors engaged with those they found walking in graveyards, or in the streets around them, and sought their help with a practical dilemma. They then repeated the exercise away from the burial ground. They reported that the first group was 40 per cent more likely to offer assistance than the second.

In which case, after my journey, I should be the epitome of public-spiritedness. The reality, I’m afraid, is disappointing, but the underlying point remains. Next time you are passing the cemetery gates, don’t just look the other way and hurry on by.

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