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How to Read a Graveyard:
Journeys in the Company of the Dead
by Peter Stanford
Given quite how much time we are likely to spend in one, it is remarkable how little space the graveyard occupies in the modern imagination. Death-denial, says Peter Stanford in this journey round western European burial sites, is rife today, and because our irreligious society no longer has sufficient language and ritual to cope with death, we generally indulge in a “costly aversion of the eyes” from our inevitable fate. Stanford, ranging across 10 sites from Rome’s catacombs to a burial park in Buckinghamshire, is here to refocus our gaze.
As with many British rituals, most of today’s burial methods take their cue from customs put in place by the Victorians, when “the church’s monopoly on burial was privatised”. With demand fuelled by a population explosion, large nondenominational cemeteries such as Paddington Old Cemetery (explored in the book) and Highgate Cemetery were built to house the dead in a neat and orderly fashion. Those purchasing their resting place could either rent a grave for a finite period or buy the spot in perpetuity (though anyone choosing to buy may have been disappointed to discover that the average grave is only visited for 15 years). Many of these improvements were originally pioneered by Napoleon, who overhauled the French burial system in 1804.
Graveyards were not always such an organised or sanitary operation. Until the advent of modern burial methods, they were often a source of disease and characterised by the stench of rotting flesh. Bad planning could affect the living as well as the dead. In 1780, the Saints-Innocents graveyard in Paris became so overcrowded that a mass of decomposing remains spilled over onto neighbouring streets near the Rue Saint-Denis. Graveyard residents are also not always left in peace. Stanford recounts the activities of Edinburgh grave-robbers, who would steal fresh cadavers in order to sell them to local medical schools. Families of the recently deceased would stand guard by a grave for weeks until the body had decomposed, or rent a mortsafe, a giant padlock to fit around the grave.
Decomposition aside, there is a haunting beauty to be found in many graveyards, and Stanford is adept at reading their “dialogue between the living and the dead”. Channelling graveyard poets such as Thomas Gray, he finds solace rather than morbidity in the timeless English church graveyard in Norfolk where he hopes to be buried, and in the lovingly maintained beauty of the Commonwealth war graves on the Somme. Inevitably, there is also a fair amount of celeb-hunting, and visits are paid to Keats and Shelley in the Cimitero Acattolico in Rome, and Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde in Père-Lachaise. Stanford’s final reflections, on green “eco-burials” (which allow the body to naturally recycle in the soil), strike a poignant but optimistic note. He suggests that we may have found an effective means of burying our loved ones, a compromise between the instant destruction of cremation and the excessive perpetuity of the mausoleum which is “in harness with the cycle of our own grieving”.
Stanford is a Catholic writer by trade, and the book is unapologetically slanted towards Christian graveyards and rituals. More problematic, though, are the long digressions on war or papal history, and the grave-by-grave accounts of his walks round each particular burial site, which begin to drag.
Nonetheless, it is hard to disagree with his assertion that everyone would be well served by an occasional walk round a cemetery, and he is effective in bringing each one he visits to life with his thoughtful reflections on society’s changing relation to mortality. This book won’t cheer you up, but it might just make the approach of death a little less terrifying when it eventually comes calling.
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