Traditional Gravestones, RIP

In the age of the text-message, British gravestones are becoming less austere

Bookshops and graveyards attract me as an iron filing to a magnet, but I seldom leave a graveyard these days with that melancholy yet not entirely unpleasant, and somewhat consolatory, apprehension of the fleetingness of my own existence. Instead, I feel irritated by the ruination of modern graveyards by vulgarity. The fact is that death has not been so much democratised (the rule has always been one man, one death) as demoticised. The tombstones are now all of shiny black stone of the kind that people like as working surfaces in their kitchens – as though death were the continuation of domestic life by other means; but worst of all are the inscriptions.

At some time in the 1990s, grieving relatives felt it was time to be less formal about death. Until then, there was a certain formality. “In memory of X, devoted husband, father and grandfather, also Y, wife of the above.”

Needless to say, the breakdown of marriage as an institution is now working its way into cemeteries: there are far fewer wives of the above than there used to be, though on the whole, women still live longer than men. But fathers and grandfathers have gone, too: nowadays, they are at best dads and granddads. As for mothers, they are mostly moms and mums now, while if they survive to grandmotherhood they become grans, nans or nanas.

I am not myself religious, but there is little doubt that religion knows, or at least once knew, how to deal with death in a dignified and consolatory way. But even in consecrated ground, the nearest a modern tombstone comes to religion is “God bless” – hardly more redolent of religious sentiment than “cheerio”.

The most one can say is that there subsists a vague belief in survival beyond death. The mate of one young man killed in a car crash (and there are no friends any more, only mates) affixed a laminated card at his grave inscribed with the words, “Hope you’re all right”. Walking through the cemetery recently in which I hope one day to be buried, I noticed a tombstone inscribed with “I’m doing the best I can”.

But who, exactly, was doing the best he or she could? The relict of the deceased? Or the deceased himself, in which case it seems that he did not lead an altogether productive or satisfactory life. My hope is that, when I die, no one thinks, let alone inscribes in stone, that I am at last fulfilling my potential.

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