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Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘cemetery’

Heart of stone

Or, taking The Mother shopping

The other week, I said how you can’t just bury a dead body without there being an awful lot of paperwork involved, at least not in any sort of above-board way. Moreover, one thing I didn’t even get to was that: when you do bury a body, you can’t just pop the gravestone up at the head of the grave there and then. The rules vary from place to place, but to avoid causing some sort of tragic subsidence-induced gravestone-toppling accident, you have to leave the grave to settle for a number of months with some sort of temporary grave marker in the ground instead. Then, some while later—and potentially when you’ve saved up the money, because gravestones are expensive—you can pull up the temporary cross or whatever and replace it with the final thing.

As the months pass after the funeral, then, you can slowly start thinking about what style of gravestone you might like. The Mother, naturally, was all for just going through the catalogue the undertaker had sent her in the post, but I thought it might be a bit nicer to see if we could find a local independent business to work with, instead of a faceless national chain. “I bet all the ones in the catalogue are hugely overpriced,” I said, appealing to her miserly side. “Why don’t we find a local stonemason instead, who you can go and talk to?” But of course I knew we couldn’t get a gravestone put up until May, and in May it would have been impossible to go looking for one. Eventually, though, I realised that we should probably start thinking about getting one before it became impossible again. So, I made the trip up to The Mother’s house, so I could get the wheels in motion.

I was all prepared to go with the “this will be cheaper than the undertaker” line again, but it turned out she had lost their catalogue anyway. “It doesn’t matter how much it is,” she said, “if it’s for your dad.” If only he’d had the same attitude about me, I thought, and didn’t say.

The other thing I didn’t say, but which to my mind was constantly hanging in the air, was: do that many people choose their own gravestone? It must be all people like The Mother, widows and widowers. How much do they actually think to themselves: this will be my gravestone one day? Do they revel in it, or do they just try to blank it out of their mind? I’m sure The Mother, who has been blanking things out of her mind and refusing to talk about them her whole life, will be doing the latter almost without thinking about it, as she’s had so many years of practice.

It’s strange how many Elderly Person tropes The Mother has seemingly adopted. I wonder at what point do they suddenly become the logical way, in your mind, to behave. Her current preferred way to pay for things seems to be to carry around one or two empty coffee jars filled with coins, and complain about how heavy they are. She can’t walk unsupported for more than a few yards without being at risk of toppling over. “You should get a stick,” I said. “The doctor told me to get a stick. Your uncle’s going to make me one from a Brussels sprout plant.” I tried to explain, firstly that he’s probably thinking of a Jersey cabbage; secondly that she doesn’t want an all-natural grown-in-the-ground wooden stick, she wants a nice light sturdy and easy-to-grip medical grade one; and, thirdly, she wants a stick now, not whenever my uncle manages to harvest and dry out a cabbage stem. Nevertheless, without a stick, I still managed to get her to the stonemason’s showroom without her toppling over at any point.

When I was a student I spent a number of weeks making site visits to various disused graveyards around the Isle of Lewis, and I remember thinking at the time: they must be terrible places for family history. Not much of the local stone on the Isle of Lewis is actually carvable; it’s too hard for that. So, most of the grave markers from say 150 years or so ago are plain, rough, uncarved pieces of rock that just happened to be roughly the size and shape of a gravestone. If you wander round one of those graveyards, all you can see are these rough teeth, no inscription, no date, no information. No risk of that now, of course. Moreover, graveyards all seem to have extensive lists of what you are and allowed to put up. I say “all graveyards”; I can quite believe that The Mother’s parish council are particularly pernickity and snob-nosed about it, going by the tone of the signs at the entrance. So, we’re not allowed anything more than 42 inches high; no life-sized angels for Dad then. No kerbstones around the grave, just a headstone. All the inscriptions and designs must be approved by the burials clerk. No inscriptions on the sides or back of the headstone. Incidentally, if you go and have a look around the cemetery you’ll see plenty of graves that do contravene the modern rules.* Clearly, they were erected in a more liberal and tolerant time than we are in now. The modern within-the-rules graves, though, are certainly much more legible than the older ones, to say nothing of those ones I saw on the Isle of Lewis, because they all tend to be in polished black marble with gold or silver inlaid lettering. And, indeed, that was the sort of product the stonemason guided us towards. “It weathers well,” she said.

“Won’t it get dirty from the rain? From all the pollution in the rain?” said The Mother.

“No, it’ll discolour a lot less than a paler colour,” said the stonemason. I’m not sure why The Mother thinks she has particularly dirty rain.

“I hate to be blunt about this,” I lied, “but we do want to plan ahead because eventually my mother will be, you know, using it too.” She looked at me, her expression cold, just as always.

“Oh yes,” said the mason, “a lot of these stones will have space for two inscriptions.” At least we definitely can’t have any of the tacky heart-shaped ones, I thought. “Or you can have one that has two halves, and we will leave one half blank.” My grandparents’ headstone is like that, in the shape of a book; but they died three months apart so the thing came along in one go. It would look a little odd just to fill half of it in for now.

In the end, to be honest, I think it went relatively well. The Mother will be happy with a nice, straightforward, classic design. It might look like most of the other graves in the cemetery, but at least it will look reasonably aesthetic, at least I don’t have to guide her away from something awful, which is mostly what I was expecting to happen.

“Typical,” she huffed, as we got back into the car and I pulled away.

“What?”

“That solicitors over there,” she said. “The first thing it says on their sign is: we can help you with divorce!”

“It’s something a lot of people need,” I said. I often thought, when I was a teenager, that The Mother would have been much happier if they had divorced, when I saw the effect my dad’s frequent sulks and rages had on her.

“Yes, well,” she said, “they shouldn’t.” I turned the stereo on, so we didn’t have to speak.

* I can’t be sure about that last one off the top of my head, to tell the truth. In Greenbank Cemetery, which I wrote about recently, it seems to have been standard practice to put the family surname on the back of each headstone, which must have made navigation an awful lot easier.

The spread of death

Or, exploring some local history

Yesterday, after the rain had stopped, we went for a walk around Greenbank, the local Victorian garden cemetery. It’s a lovely place to visit whatever the weather, but on a cold day, after a rainstorm, with drips coming from every branch and all of the colours having a dark rain-soaked richness, it is a beautiful quiet place to wander around. Even when the children are pestering you to turn around and head back home so they can have some hot chocolate and watch TV. “It is a very hot chocolate sort of day,” said The Child Who Likes Fairies.

Wandering down the avenue

Exploring the graves

At the centre of Greenbank Cemetery is a connected pair of mortuary chapels: one for Anglicans, and a separate but identical one for other forms of Protestant. They have been derelict and fenced off for a long time, and their central wooden spire was taken down sixty or seventy years ago, but they are still surviving despite the failure of plans a few years ago to restore them and make them usable spaces once more. Above the entrance to the central atrium, between the two chapels, is a finely-carved inscription. “Opened 1871. Enlarged 1880.”

Greenbank Cemetery, Opened 1871, Enlarged 1880

Nowadays when you look at Greenbank on a map it’s surrounded in many places: by roads, by housing, on one side by a disused railway line. So I thought I’d dig into the archives to find out what its original groundplan was, and which parts were extended. Luckily, thanks to the fantastic work of Know Your Place Bristol and their maps, this was relatively straightforward to do. This first map is dated to 1880-81, so it seems to be after the first phase of enlargement of the cemetery. If you don’t know the area, note that it is bounded by an open stream to the west and north, and that Greenbank Road goes up to the cemetery gates and no further. I assume the original area of the cemetery was the part centred on the chapels, and the extension was the area east of the line of trees.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1881

In many ways, even without the big garden cemetery this would be a typical landscape for the fringes of a growing Victorian city: a hotchpotch mixture of farmland and unplanned speculative terrace-building. There are rows of houses without proper streets in some parts, streets laid out without houses in others, and a city-sized workhouse with its own private burial ground behind it. If I’d extended the map to the north or to the south, you’d see a typical Victorian park: Eastville Park on one side and St George’s Park on the other.

If we skip forward thirty years or so, we can see how much the landscape has “filled out”. Moreover, we can see how the cemetery has been expanded to the west. The stream has been culverted; the land to the north and south of the cemetery has been taken by allotments. This map is from 1912; I’ve traced a map from 1902 which doesn’t show this, so we can assume this expansion took place some time in the Edwardian period, more or less.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1912

In that thirty years huge parts of Easton which previously had just been sketched out for development have now become packed terraced streets, and some of the terraces which were built along narrow paths now have proper roads to them. Schools have been built, and a church. There’s a lot less open space, but there’s still some, here and there. Fishponds Road has acquired trams, up in the top-left corner; and the workhouse have stopped burying their dead on their own land.

If you know the area, though, you’ll know that it does still look a bit different today. To see the modern layout of the cemetery, we have to move forward to a 1950s map.

Greenbank Cemetery, c. 1955

This is the boundaries of the cemetery as it is today. Greenbank Road has been extended, and Rose Green Road has been widened to take traffic. The cemetery has swallowed up the allotments on either side of it, stretching out to reach the roads. This must have happened some time after 1938, as a 6-inch-scale map revised that year still shows the allotments. However, it can’t have happened very long after, going by the dates of some of the graves on the ground. These sections of the cemetery include a number of graves from the Second World War, including civilian victims and enemy prisoners.

What’s always puzzled me about this, though, is that still to this day the emptiest parts of the cemetery include some of the areas which were included in the original 1871 cemetery right from its opening. The north-western side of the original cemetery, which slopes quite steeply down to the course of the brook which marked the original boundary, is still empty of graves. It’s one of the areas being used nowadays for interment, along the line of a path which was put in place when the cemetery first opened. Meanwhile, the late-Victorian and the 1930s extensions are jam-packed with graves, many of them now overgrown and abandoned.

This is the point at which a proper essay on local history would be drawing to a conclusion and discussing what conclusions we can draw about the growth of cemeteries in provincial English cities. As for me, I just like looking at old maps. I think it’s a fair assumption, though, that that city council deliberately bought additional land around the cemetery with the aim of expanding the cemetery into it when required, and in the interim used it for allotment space. Of course, I also like wandering round a cold, damp cemetery, too.

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

At some point I’ll have to write more about that other burial ground marked on the map. That’s not just disused: for many years there was no sign of it at all on the ground, until a memorial was erected relatively recently. That, though, will be a story for another day.

Photo Post Of The Week

In which we visit a small corner of London

Regular readers might recall that recently, we visited the London Zine Symposium, and I mentioned it on here. That post, after lots of rambling about the aristocratic “anarchists” of the zine world, ended with us leaving the zine symposium and heading off into the big city, with no hint of what we might do next.

Well: we explored. I took K on a walk something like one I’d done before, from Bankside up past St Pauls, through a deserted Smithfield, past Farringdon and up into Clerkenwell. And on the way, we passed somewhere I wasn’t aware of three years ago when I last passed it. So, we went in.

Postman's Park

This is: Postman’s Park, right in the centre of the City, on King Edward St; a 19th-century park made from former graveyards and churchyards which abutted each other. A small patch of green. I’d heard about it from Nothing To See Here, which has featured Postman’s Park and its most distinctive feature. The Watts Memorial, to commemorate the bravery of ordinary people.

Memorial, Postman's Park

It consists of 47 tile plaques, under a lean-to shelter, commemorating ordinary people who died saving the lives of others, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The painter G F Watts created it, from the late 1880s onwards; he delved into the archives for some of the plaques, commemorating deaths from 25 years earlier.

The rest of the park has its own air of strangeness, being lined with headstones dating from its days as a group of churchyards. Especially on a summer Sunday evening, it is a quietly mysterious place, the art-nouveau plaques of the memorial lending it a subtle neogothic touch.

Memorial, Postman's Park