Grave Questions

by Theodore Dalrymple (June 2013)


Is a taste for graveyards and cemeteries morbid? If so, I have been morbid for most of my life, since about the age of twelve when I first developed it. For me, cemeteries are like bookshops: I cannot pass them without entering, though I usually leave the latter with a purchase and the former only with my thoughts and emotions.

The Victorians, at least in Britain, knew how to make a good cemetery: many a British town’s best feature is its municipal burial ground that they laid down. I am old enough to remember the time when everything Victorian was despised or mocked, and it is true that after the 1840s most of their furniture was abominable, the suet pudding of interior decoration; but in fact the Victorians were far from the clumsy philistines in all respects that we took them for because we wanted to liberate ourselves from their supposed hypocrisy and moralising (to develop hypocrisy and moralising of our own).

Victorian cemeteries usually have a granite Gothic chapel or two, lichen and moss having lent them a patina of age and dignity. The Victorians’ confidence that their works would survive them is shown by the trees that they planted: yews, cypresses and oaks, which are now venerable and grateful to the eye. Victorian tombstones and memorials were varied but dignified, expressions of personal choice but yet in keeping with one another and rarely making a purely egotistical gesture (and when they do so, it is a good one). The inscriptions are dignified and appear to me sincere. The Victorians understood the aesthetic value of asymmetry and did not bury their dead in military ranks as we do now, perhaps for lack of space, as if we were all privates in the army of death, all of us provided by our families with almost identical tombstones made of the kind of shiny stone used on the surfaces of kitchen islands or the walls of public lavatories in five-star hotels. No, whether by accident or design, the Victorians used materials that would age gracefully and placed their graves with an orderly randomness and spontaneity that is, emotionally and aesthetically, incomparably superior to our own unimaginative arrangements.

A good cemetery is a consolation for our own mortality.

The inscriptions on the tombs are interesting as social and demographic history. Widows and widowers of the first person buried in the grave fall, it seems to me, into two groups: those who survived the deceased by only a short time, and those who survived him or her, usually him, by many years, never to remarry. One loses oneself in reverie: did those who died soon after the death of their spouse die of a broken heart, and did those who died long after spend the rest of their lives bitterly regretting or rejoicing to be free of him?

In all such cemeteries one finds tombstones that record the deaths of many young children, often those of the same parents. Infant mortality was so high, and the causes so ill-understood, that resignation before it was psychologically necessary; Dickens even made something of a joke of it at the beginning of Great Expectations, being powerless to do anything else about it.

As the infant mortality rate fell, so the death of a child came to seem correspondingly more tragic as an individual event, a violation rather than a normal manifestation of the nature of things. While in Victorian times there was no special area in the cemetery for children, in later times a kind of children’s corner was established. And there I have noticed a sudden change in sensibility, in about 1990, a change that I do not much care for.

Before that date (which of course is approximate rather than definite) tombstones of children were restrained and dignified. After that date, they became vulgar and sentimental, with emotionally cheap and slushy inscriptions. Moreover, the tombs of the children were now often surrounded by toys, cakes, dolls, clothes, plastic windmills, football shirts, cards covered in cellophane and so forth, that have usually rotted by neglect in our less than clement climate. It was as if people were no longer content to grieve privately, but had to manifest their emotion to all and sundry, as if they could feel nothing unless others could see by the ornaments of a child’s grave that they were grieving. Others see me feel, therefore I feel. One could even detect a form of competition between the grieving parents, to see which of them could festoon the graves with the most extravagant decorations as if this would prove that their grief was the deepest, their loss the most deeply felt. In other words, they were not just experiencing an emotion, they were experiencing themselves experiencing an emotion, deriving a pleasurable self-righteousness from it: the very soul of kitsch.

In the beautiful cemetery of a town called Yeovil – pronounced Yo-ville, but that my satellite-navigation system, not altogether without justification, pronounced You-evil – I noticed the contrast of this kitsch with more genuine emotion. A very young child died and was buried in the cemetery 1964 and I noticed two years ago that the parents (I assumed it was they) had placed a single fresh flower in a vase by the little tombstone that gave nothing but the child’s name and the dates of its all too short existence on earth.  I was much moved that these parents were still grieving – in a private, undemonstrative and dignified fashion - 47 years later. How young and fresh and full of hope they must have been when their child was born, and now they must have been in their early seventies! Of course they had got on with their lives in the meantime, but a grief must always have been just below the surface of their daily existence and I suspect that the child who died was their only child. At any rate, I happened to go to the cemetery two years later and found another fresh flower in the vase at the grave. A grief borne for 49 years, and I imagine nobly borne.

The contrast of the single flower in the vase with the sound of the plastic windmills turning in the wind and the sight of the dirty, sodden and neglected teddy bears on the more recent graves of children could hardly have been more striking. It was as if two vastly different civilisations had met in the same place; one that valued dignity and depth, and the other shallowness and a meretricious show of emotion.

Another cemetery that I came to like was that of Llanelli in South Wales. Llanelli has always had a rather poor reputation from the purely aesthetic point of view, not surprisingly perhaps in view of its principal economic activities of the past two centuries, mining and steel-making, which do not make for beauty; but nowadays the mines and the steelworks are shut and the main industry is the administration of economic decline. It is a sad and forlorn place, but I came to like the people. They started conversations at bus-stops and when they learned I was a doctor asked my medical advice which I gave them cautiously so as not to contradict their own medical advisers. More than once I met an old coal miner, a widower in his late seventies, at the bus-stop from which both he and I took the bus into town. It is highly probable that his political ideas were very different from mine, but one feels an instinctive respect for a man who has spent his life down the pits (they closed for good just as he reached retirement age). He went every day at lunchtime down to the centre of the town, and every day he was dressed immaculately. His starched snow-white shirt was dazzling; he wore a striped tie and a smart blazer; the crease of his trouser legs was sharp and his black shoes were polished. Not for him the deliberately torn jeans of spoilt youth trying, from pseudo-sympathy with the unfortunate, to look poor; he did one good to look upon, for his smartness of dress was a triumph of the human spirit. It was not vanity, it was self-respect, and one could go a hundred miles without (alas) finding its like.

I used while I was in Llanelli to go to the cemetery on fine days and there lie on the grass between the tombstones with a book, usually poetry (a feeble gesture in the direction of Romanticism), and almost invariably fall asleep under the sun. One day I woke up from my brief nap and to my surprise saw a woman in her fifties nearby dressed in the Punjabi Moslem costume of the salwar kameez. I was doubly surprised, first because hardly anybody, apart from me, seemed to visit the cemetery, and second because the last person I should have expected to see among the tombstones was a Punjabi woman. She was carrying a bunch of flowers.

She asked me, in English that she had obviously learned too late in life to master throughly, whether I knew where the grave of Margaret Davies was. Margaret Davies is not exactly a distinctive name in Wales and besides I had not committed to memory the whereabouts of hundreds or thousands of graves. But I said I would help her try to find it.

As we searched I asked her why she wanted to find it. She said that she had come to Llanelli from Pakistan as a young woman, and had lived next door to Margaret Davies. Margaret Davies had been very good to her and had become her friend. Then she, the Punjabi woman whose name I never learned, moved away. She had come back on a visit and learned that in the meantime Margaret Davies had died and was buried in this cemetery; she wanted to leave flowers on her grave as a token of gratitude and remembrance.

I was much moved by this story, the story of two ordinary people (for such I assumed they were) using their common humanity to overcome potentially bewildering and frightening difference. It must, after all, have been almost as difficult for Margaret Davies to be suddenly confronted by a Punjabi neighbour as for the Punjabi neighbour to have been suddenly translocated from the Pakistani Punjab to Llanelli.

When one hears a story like this, one is immediately prey to a certain kind of sentimentality. Why cannot everyone be like this? Why can’t we all just get on together, allowing what unites us to be more important than what divides us? Why is there not universal and perpetual peace rather than widespread conflict? Surely, left to their own devices, and uninflamed by ideologues and political entrepreneurs, people would just find a modus vivendi? In East Africa, I had spent three months living in the home of a Punjabi Pakistani family without the faintest hint of conflict over anything. Perhaps there was a subject or two we avoided, but there always are subjects that are best avoided when people live in close association.

To the questions above I do not think any definitive answer can be given. Unfortunately men – and it is usually men - are often seized by the idea that they know the one way to live, that is to say the answers to all the difficult problems of human existence that are consequent upon the possession of consciousness. I know this in part from the inside: I have in my life sometimes been seized by it myself. I always feel ashamed, and miserable, after I have had an attack of dogmatism, especially as I have so many times resolved never to have another.

What is possible, though by no means guaranteed, between individuals, however, often turns out to be impossible or at any rate much more difficult between groups. Perhaps the good Margaret Davies would have felt very differently if her entire street had been suddenly inhabited and taken over by large numbers of Pakistani Punjabis. Then she would have moved away and quite probably have felt embittered at the loss of the world she had known. Be all that as it may, Llanelli will remain forever associated in my mind with its cemetery, and with Margaret Davies and the Pakistani Punjabi lady who wanted to put flowers on her grave.

There was another little incident that engraved itself upon my mind in Llanelli. My wife and I used to go to an Indian, or rather Bangladeshi, restaurant there, largely faute de mieux. It was not well-patronised, and often we fell into conversation with a young waiter there of Bangladeshi descent (the lives of waiters have long fascinated me). He spoke with a Welsh accent, and we asked him whether he had ever been abroad and if so where to.

‘I went to Bangladesh once,’ he said.

‘Anywhere else?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I’ve been to England.’

That’s real integration for you: a Llanelli man, born and bred, who thinks of England as a foreign country. For a brief moment I almost felt optimistic.

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.


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