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A Tomb With a View: The Stories & Glories of Graveyards
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On 20 March 2014, two women were walking through Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin after visiting the grave of a family friend when they found the body of Shane MacThomais, who had written books about the city and its cemetery. He was 46 and had been struggling with depression for some time. He was also, as Peter Ross says, the best-known guide at the most-famous cemetery in Ireland, visited by 200,000 people a year.
MacThomais once said of Glasnevin: The place is so vast you could tell the whole history of Ireland ten times over. It is a city within a city; its 124 acres hold 1.5m graves, more than Dublin's current population. "I don't think he saw it as a place where dead people were laid to rest," said his daughter. "I think he saw it as so much information stored around him. It was like a library." MacThomais's knowledge of Irish history was so vast, Ross writes, that his suicide was likened to a library burning down. He was buried alongside his father in the cemetery that had meant so much to him.
Ross's chapter on MacThomais is deeply moving and filled with a sense of wonder for Dublin's most famous necropolis. MacThomais found inspiration in that burial ground: "I look at all the headstones and I imagine all the people here, all the stories that are yet to be discovered and told. And it lifts my heart." In a way, Ross's beautifully written book is a homage to MacThomais, a heartfelt attempt to bring graveyards and their history alive.
Take a walk through a burial ground, read the weathered names on the lichen-covered stones, and your mind snags on stories. In Hampstead cemetery, Ross stands by the grave of the music hall star Marie Lloyd while playing her 1915 recording of 'A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good' on his phone, and it feels like time travel. At St Nicholas's, Brighton, he finds the headstone of Phoebe Hessel, the so-called 'Stepney Amazon', who was born in 1713 and joined the army aged 15, disguised as a man, so that she would not be separated from her sweetheart. Her true identity was only discovered when she was wounded by a bayonet; she lived to the age of 108. As a historian tells him in Belfast's oldest graveyard, Friar's Bush (in use since at least 1570): "You never quite know where a headstone's going to take you."
In Edinburgh, Ross visits Greyfriars kirkyard (to use the Scots word), where the Skye terrier Greyfriars Bobby sat loyally by his master's grave for 14 years and where he is now buried. In Rothwell, Northamptonshire, Ross ventures beneath Holy Trinity Church to the charnel chapel, which contains the bones of 2,500 people, dating from the 13th century. "It's a place where you can reflect," says the vicar, who prays among the bones. At Hainault, in Essex, he sees a Muslim cemetery, the Gardens of Peace, where a number of the victims from the Grenfell Tower fire were buried and where flowers are discouraged: "It had no interest in comforting or impressing; it was a waiting room for judgment day."
In modern Britain, however, fewer people are choosing to be buried in a graveyard: three quarters opt for cremation. Visiting and tending graves of relatives is also becoming less common, though strangely tombstone tourism is booming; Highgate cemetery is soon to have a cafe. In Brompton cemetery, Ross joins the Queerly Departed tour around plots of those thought to have been gay, lesbian, bisexual or some shade between. They pay their respects at the grave of the bohemian Italian heiress and bisexual, Marchesa Luisa Casati, who died in 1957 aged 76, and was buried with her taxidermied Pekinese: "She elevated hedonism to the level of poetry, putting the cadence into decadence, the verse into perverse."
In Highgate - described by John Betjeman as the 'Victorian Valhalla' - Ross meets the gravedigger Victor Herman, who has been digging graves since the age of 13, and who also helps people choose where they will be buried: "They go to the extent of lying down on the plot and looking up at the sky," he says. "It's amazing. You get them up and they shake your hand and hug you." A grave in Highgate will set you back around £22,000, one of the most expensive in the land.
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