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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘death’

The afterlife

Or, a TV review

Recently, I’ve been watching the Netflix documentary series Surviving Death, covering various pieces of evidence for the existence of an afterlife, across various themes. It was…an interesting watch, which tries to stay even-handed; but its thematic approach meant a huge degree of difference between how each topic was presented and how plausible each one seemed to be.

Personally, I’ve always been intrigued by anything paranormal—blame those classic 1980s Usborne books—and I wouldn’t say I’m a sceptic. More, I’m one of those people who almost wishes they could believe in the paranormal were it not that the evidence for it is almost universally thin and quick to shatter at the slightest glance. The biggest issue I have with Surviving Death is that its attempt to be even-handed comes across uniformly in favour of the paranormal, because of the complete lack of any sort of critique at all. If anything, this does the more plausible phenomena a disservice, as they are lumped in with others that do have straightforward alternative explanations.

The largest topic covered across the whole series was “Mediums”, with two episodes; and it also came across as the area given the most credulous treatment. This is largely because it included no critical comment at all, of any sort. On the other hand, though, it would be difficult to include any critical comment on mediumship without it quickly becoming clear that there are no aspects of mediumship, none at all, that cannot be reproduced by different magicianship skills. Indeed, Harry Houdini’s work in discrediting various mediums in the first half of the twentieth century was explained as being unreliable, because as a showman, Houdini would have exaggerated his own skills and therefore he couldn’t be trusted. I suppose it’s better than Conan Doyle’s explanation of why Houdini’s work should be trusted, but it’s not much better.*

There were occasional threads dangling, which I would like to have pulled on. A major part of the “Mediums” episodes were given over to a physical medium—one who can manifest “ectoplasm” and other artefacts. Her physical seances only took place in pitch-black rooms with no cameras inside, so the manifestations had to be taken on trust. A sitting with a mental medium was filmed; but the session did not seem to go at all in the direction the medium had wanted. The message the sitter had been hoping for certainly didn’t come through, but the filmmakers seemed uninterested in exploring what might have happened, or why it had failed. In short, the episodes on mediums were extremely unconvincing, but seemed happy to turn a blind eye at the least convincing moments.

Across the whole series, though, not everything was quite so clear-cut or shallow. The final episode, on reincarnation, was in parts both touching and uncomfortable to watch, as the programme covered a man who, as a child, had apparently had memories of a former life. Those described in the film were traceable to a real, identifiable person, and there seemed no way that the boy could have known the things he had talked about, or why he would have said them. The man he had grown up to be, though, clearly wished he could forget all the things he had said as a child; and on meeting the family of the man he might have been the reincarnation of, he seemed deeply sorry for not fulfilling all their dreams.

Overall, Surviving Death was a bit of a mixed bag. There were a lot of interesting ideas, and a lot of interesting people, some of them very damaged people. It triggered the scientist in me, though. I wanted to go poking, go investigating, answer some of the questions. I wanted to test out the haunted Polaroid camera that featured in one episode, to find out whether it would be haunted if you used it in a different house.** The programmes were so busy trying to be open-minded, though, to present everything without judgement or criticism, that any sort of questioning or investigation was completely off the menu. It’s a shame. Now, I want to go back and pull at all the threads.

* Conan Doyle apparently convinced himself that although Houdini claimed to be a stage magician, he actually had secret paranormal powers, which is how he could reproduce the tricks that mediums carried out.

** And, indeed, find out whether it was that specific camera that was haunted, and exactly what was unusual about that camera’s type of film pack.

Snow day photos of the week

It didn't last long

When the weather forecast says there’s going to be snow I’m always slightly cynical. For one thing, I’m suspicious the forecast always errs on the side of caution when it comes to snow. Secondly, in this part of town, snow falls less and sticks less than on the higher ground of high-altitude suburbs like Clifton and Horfield. In Easton, the snow is rare and quickly turns to slush.

I was slightly surprised, then, when there was about an inch of lying snow when we got up this morning. Given it was fairly surely going to be half-melted by lunchtime, the only thing to do was to head outside straight away.

Snowy school field

Snowy railway embankment

We headed to a spot that will be very familiar to regular readers: Greenbank Cemetery. Although we were an hour or so before the official opening time, the cemetery was already busy with people who had sneaked through the many, many gaps in the fence. The slopes near the gates were bigger with sledgers, so we headed to the quieter parts where the snows were deeper.

Snowy cemetery

Snowy cemetery

Snowy cemetery

I was quite taken by this piece of Victorian doggerel that I’ve never noticed in the cemetery before.

This is a terrible poem

In loving memory of William Randall, who died April 14th 1891, aged 56 years.

Afflictions sore with patience bore,
Physicians were in vain,
Till God saw fit to take me home,
And ease me of my pain.

Also Martha Randall, wife of the above, who died September 25th 1894, aged 58 years.

There wasn’t space for an equally awful poem for Martha as well; or for their children, commemorated around the other side.

Beside the cemetery, the nature reserve under the disused Midland Railway viaduct was a bit of a muddy slough. All around us the snow was melting, dripping constantly from the trees.

Nature reserve and railway viaduct

We returned home via the area’s other prime sledging spot, Rosemary Green, a part of town that I’ve been intending to write about here for a while, although in recent years its history has been thoroughly documented by the Bristol Radical History Group, culminating in the book 100 Fishponds Road: Life and Death in a Victorian Workhouse by Ball, Parkin and Mills. To cut a long story short (if you want the full story go and buy the book): to avoid increasing the council tax poor rate, the board of Eastville Workhouse thought they would save money on funerals by buying a piece of waste ground behind the workhouse, paying the Church of England’s somewhat exorbitant consecration fee, and packing dead residents into mass graves without having to pay for coffins, priests, artisanal gravediggers and the like. Through the second half of the 19th century, probably around 4,000 poor people were buried unmarked in the mass grave. About fifty years ago the workhouse was knocked down to build a housing estate. As the Church disclaimed all responsibility, the bodies were dug up by bulldozer, and the larger bones were pulled out and reburied in a second unmarked mass grave in Avonview Cemetery. The soil and the smaller bones were spread out across the site. Today, Rosemary Green is a pretty and quiet little piece of green space, grass sloping steeply down from the housing estate to a small football pitch at the bottom; but if you were to dig a hole there, you would find the soil is full of small fragments of crushed human bone from thousands of different people.

Today, of course, it was busy with sledging children and snowmen; but it was barely mid-morning and almost all the snow had already been sledged away. By the time we got home, the sound of trickling water in every gutter and drain filled the streets. Mid-afternoon, as I write this, the snow has gone with barely a sign it was here. At least I can share these photos.

Local cemeteries, redux

Or, improvements in photography

Regular readers might remember the post last week about Ridgeway Park Cemetery, a small and heavily overgrown cemetery bordering Eastville Park in Bristol. As our daily exercise at the weekend, I took The Children back there again, but took the Proper Camera with me this time.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

It was an excellent winter’s day for taking the camera out, and you can certainly see the difference when compared to the previous photos.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

We took the opportunity, as it is winter, to poke around in some of the parts of the cemetery that are completely overgrown and virtually impassable in summer.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

I won’t post the full set of photos here because there’s quite a few, but you can go and look at them on Flickr if you’d like; I’ve tried to transcribe some of the inscriptions too.

Another human cemetery

Not Greenbank, for a change

Another day, another cemetery, although back on to a human one this time. Back in October, Twitter user @libbymiller asked if I knew Ridgeway Park Cemetery. Although I do know it, and I’ve been foraging for brambles there frequently in summer, for some reason I’ve never taken any photos. Today I woke up, saw it was a fine frosty day, so tried wandering off in that direction.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park is only small, but its history tracks in microcosm the history of the great urban Victorian cemeteries of Britain. It opened in the 1880s as a private alternative to the nearby city-owned Greenbank Cemetery, filled up with graves, and as it filled up and plot purchases dropped off its owners could no longer make a profit from it. In 1949 the owning company was wound up and the cemetery taken over by the city council.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery, mapped

It was built behind a grand old house, Ridgway House, which in the 1860s seems to have been the home of the private school attended by local celebrity W G Grace. The house was demolished in the late 30s, and there is now no sign of it at all above the ground as far as I’m aware, although Huyton Road runs on the line of its approach drive. Although the house has disappeared completely, the boundaries of the cemetery still follow the lines of previous boundaries. The following map is from immediately before both the cemetery and Eastville Park were laid out, but the cemetery boundaries can be clearly traced on the tithe map from 40 years earlier.

Before the cemetery was built

Unlike the still-active Greenbank, and the much-loved Arnos Vale, Ridgeway Park seems relatively forgotten as cemeteries go. The area near the gates is in reasonable condition, just with grass a little long; but as you go in further, towards the park, it becomes more and more overgrown until you are effectively in a patch of woodland with added gravestones.

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

Ridgeway Park Cemetery

If you’re local, this is the ideal time of year to visit somewhere quite so overgrown. If you’re not, you might have to wait a while and come back next winter. Or, indeed, in summer, when it has an entirely different atmosphere but is still just as lovely a spot.

Update, January 11th 2021: I went back to Ridgeway Park with an SLR camera and took some more photos. The new post about it is here.

A more unusual cemetery post

Or, what to do with your faithful companions if you're rich

Last night was a wild night. Howling wind, hammering rain, the sort of storm that wakes you up as it’s trying to blow your bins down the street.

I was surprised, then, this morning, to find the storm had passed and it was a bright, sunny, fresh winter’s day. Not wanting to waste it, and wanting to get some post-Yuletide fresh air, we headed out to Ashton Court. If you know Bristol, you probably know Ashton Court. If you don’t: it’s an ancient manor, already a manor before the Norman invasion, which was bought by the City Council in the 1950s to avoid it becoming completely derelict.

Ashton Court

This is, according to the internet, a much-hacked-about 16th century gatehouse. The interior of Ashton Court is a bit of a mystery, as not much of it is ever open to the public, but its enormous grounds are effectively a public park, albeit a public park that still hosts a herd of red deer. It also hosts a slightly less medieval golf course (boo) and miniature railway (hurrah).

Naturally, today, the railway wasn’t running and I’ve never seen what’s attractive about golf, so we wandered the various gardens and parkland and woods on the estate, nearly slipped over in the soggy, slippy mud from last night’s storm, managed not to fall into the waterlogged haha, and stood by the deer park fence watching the deer.

At the edge of the garden, though, we found something a little more unusual and a little more interesting: the pet cemetery of the last family to live in the house, in the first half of the 20th century. It does not, a hundredish years later, look particularly well cared for.

Pet cemetery

Presumably most of the graves are of dogs, although the headstones generally stick to euphemisms like “faithful companion” and similar. You have to assume this is the grave of a dog, not a servant.

Grave of Matthew

Some of them are in better condition than others.

Pet grave

Pet grave

If I’d known it was there, I’d have brought the Proper Camera, a sketchbook and a measuring tape. If we have another nice day, maybe I should come back again.

Grave of Sylvie

The burial

What happens after you die

This is one of an occasional series of articles recounting the stories around my dad’s death from cancer in 2019, and what happened afterwards. More specifically, this post follows on directly from this one about his funeral service.

Personally speaking, I don’t have much experience of funeral services. At my dad’s I was steeling myself up to have to say thank you, afterwards, to all the people who had come along who I didn’t know at all. I remember as a child, being taken to church: the priest standing at the door as everyone filed out, shaking their hand and thanking them for coming. Somehow I had assumed we’d probably have to do the same thing, thank everyone for coming and for feeling suitably sad. Indeed, the undertakers asked if we wanted to stand outside the church and speak to the other mourners. The Mother, though, wasn’t ready for anything like that. She wanted us to get going as quickly as we could.

“As quickly as we could” is a bit of a misnomer for a funeral, of course. The Rector at The Mother’s church had already told us she liked to lead processions from the church to the cemetery on foot. At, it turned out, a fairly glacial pace, one step at a time. The cortege followed, and I tried to carefully drive at a matching pace without accidentally rear-ending the hearse. We crept through the village lanes linking the church and the cemetery, waiting at junctions for passing traffic, watching old men stop and remove their hats as we passed. The whole journey was well under half a mile, but it felt like an age.

Naturally, the rest of the extended family had all reached the cemetery well before us, and had all half-blocked the lane outside the cemetery with their cars to some distance either side of the cemetery gates. Not exactly knowing what to do, and with the limousine carrying my father’s frail sisters right behind us, I blindly followed the hearse through the cemetery gates and up the path. We just fitted through: but of course we did, you have to be able to get a hearse into a cemetery after all. We sailed slowly up the single path that runs up the middle of the field. The village cemetery is nearly full, with only a few spaces left available to people who lived within the bounds of the parish,*, so my dad’s grave was tucked away down at one corner at the far end, a mound of wet clay marking it out. Hand-dug by a professional artisan gravedigger, because the parish council has put a ban on mini-diggers. My mind naturally wondered if this would be a selling-point in Bishopston or St Werburghs.

We gathered around the muddy hole, its edged protected with fake turf. When all of us were in place, everyone decanted from their cars, the pallbearers carefully carried the wicker coffin over and solemnly lowered it into place. The Rector said her piece, and we scattered soil; then, one by one, flowers from a bunch of white roses. The undertaker had suggested this idea, “but don’t buy them from us,” she’d said. “Go to a supermarket before the funeral and pick some up, it’ll be a third of the price we charge.” So we had dutifully stopped off at Morrisons on the way there, for a bunch of white roses to be thrown into the grave. I took them round the mourners, offering them out to my various aunts and uncles and cousins in rough order of consanguinity downwards. Behind the hedge at the edge of the cemetery, a horse started neighing. The Child Who Likes Animals was trying to get away and look for bugs and minibeasts in the undergrowth.

I took out my phone, trying to be relatively discreet, and took a photo of the coffin lying in the grave with soil and roses scattered on top. The last one. Soft rain had started, and the relatives were all heading to their cars, ready to head off to the waiting buffet over on the other side of the village. The bespoke artisan gravediggers were, I assumed, hiding somewhere round the corner ready to start their hand-shovelling as soon as was tactful, as soon as we were all out of sight. Loading the family back into the car, I gingerly reversed back down the path and out to the lane, dead slow lest there be any elderly relatives directly behind me. It wouldn’t really do to drive over somebody at a funeral.

* If you already own a plot but want to open it up to add another body, then the village council charges you about fifteen times more if the new body comes from outside the parish. Can’t be doing with outsiders moving in for eternity, I assume.

Fun times

Or, another post on death, discussed somewhat bluntly

I’ve written a few things so far about my father’s death, just over a year ago now. Some were recollections written recently; the post about his death itself was written down not long after it happened. I’m glad I wrote it when I did, because, in trying to write this post, on how it felt to “host” a funeral, to be one of the more prominent mourners at it, there is an awful lot that I realise now I don’t remember.

It’s amazing just how long it takes to arrange a funeral, after someone dies; all the things that have to be aligned in everyone’s calendar. It ended up being booked for a date about three weeks or so after his death, which at least gave me time to discuss with The Children whether they wanted to go or not; give various other relatives time to decide if they could make it, and so on. “There’ll be a good turnout for his funeral,” one of his old colleagues had said. “There’s always a good turnout for funerals.” He had never been social in any way during his working life; after he retired work funerals had made up a good proportion of his social calendar, or so it seemed. A group of his old colleagues had made a point of visiting him regularly during the four years of his terminal illness; part of me thought it was rather nice of them, given I’d never have thought him likely to do the reverse, and part of me wondered if they were just getting themselves stoked up for the eventual social event that would result.

We got to The Mother’s house in plenty of time, we thought, before anyone else would get there; plenty of time to get The Children into their funeral outfits but not enough time for them to get into a mess. We had, I hoped, already sorted out the debate as to who would travel with who; sorting out the various priority arguments as to who would get to ride in the undertakers’ limousines. My father’s family could hold grudges for years;* if one of his older sisters fell out with the other over some aspect of funeral etiquette, it would be quite plausible they would never speak to each other ever again. Thankfully my cousins all arrived to try to negotiate and marshal things; The Mother sat stony-faced in silence, letting the debate all happen around her, trying to avoid getting involved.

The cortege arrived, and slowly everyone shuffled into their correct seats. “Just follow us in your car,” said the undertaker, “and turn your car’s lights on. That way other people will know you’re with us.” Is this some rule of the road that all drivers know except me, I wondered. The hearse and the limousine pulled away, and I pulled out of the drive behind at dead slow pace.

Being part of a funeral procession gives you a certain amount of privilege, the privilege to make other people stop or delay what they are doing. We glided serenely down the main road into the village, dead straight for a mile. I concentrated on keeping my speed even, worrying throughout what would happen if some random driver did pull out and separate me from the rest of the procession. Who knows if anybody saw us, or realised what was happening? The village church is on the main road, but when we arrived all normal road rules went out of the window. We drove into the middle of the road as if turning into the lane alongside the church; but instead, glided like swans onto the wrong side of the main road to stop on yellow lines, facing the wrong way into the traffic. We carefully unloaded ourselves onto the pavement, and the Rector was there to greet us solemn-faced, her surplice flapping in the wind. I left the keys in the ignition so the undertakers could shunt the cars out of the way for us; it felt unnatural and wrong.

Funeral orations must be a key skill for a priest. As we sat in the front pew listening to her New England vowels, I thought about all the things we had said to her, me and The Mother, when she’d come to gather information for it. I had been pretty open and honest with her about everything I saw as Dad’s faults, his coldness, his distance, his sudden rages. The Mother denied much of this had ever happened; I wasn’t sure if this was a desire to hide things from the Rector, a pair of rose-tinted grief spectacles, or a lifelong inability to admit he had faults. It was impressive to hear the Rector’s editorial skill: how she turned the account of how my parents got together into something resembling a romcom meet-cute, when phrases like “restraining order” are arguably more appropriate. They say, once you’ve seen the inside of a sausage factory you never want to eat another sausage. I’m sure I’ll be rather more cynical listening to funeral tributes in future. Anything at all negative, anything at all that might give the listener uncomfortable thoughts, is carefully wiped away to avoid upsetting them.

I stared at the coffin, looking awfully small. We’d gone for a wicker coffin, nicely rustic and biodegradable, ignoring the undertakers’ warning that it would creak like a ship in a gale as it was carried down the aisle. It was something Dad genuinely did believe in: self-sufficiency, living at one with the land, biodegradability and so on. Of course, due to the delay between death and funeral, and the amount of necrotic flesh already inside his abdomen by the time he died, the undertakers had also recommended we had him thoroughly embalmed. I knew, therefore, that sitting there by the lectern was an environmentally-friendly fully-biodegradable basketwork coffin with a thoroughly-unfriendly preservative-pumped corpse inside it. I still sit and wonder sometimes, a year since the whole arrangement went into the soil, what the relative rates of decay of coffin and body are, and just how recognisable his body still is.

At least myself and The Mother had immediately agreed on the coffin, knowing he would have liked the idea, because talking to the Rector we had disagreed wildly as to what else he had believed. For example, the Rector had asked if he was an religious man: not a surprising question, given that she had probably never seen him inside her church, whereas The Mother is there weekly.**

The Mother: Oh yes, he was always very religious.

Me: Really?

The Rector: I’m sensing some disagreement here…

The Mother: Of course he was religious!

Now, if I have to be completely scrupulous and honest about it, I can’t say. At no point in my life, no point at all, did he ever give me any indication of what he did or did not believe. The only thing I can say is: The Mother, ever since a sudden draught of religiosity when I was young, has gone to church every week as routine as clockwork, dragging me with her until I was old enough to say no. My Dad, barring weddings, funerals etc, went grudgingly once a year to the family event where they give everyone an orange and peanuts.

The Mother: Well, I know he was religious.

I don’t remember, now, what hymns she chose, only that the Rector thought them rather too mournful for a funeral and tried to get her to pick something less depressing. The Mother doesn’t do cheerful at the best of times. The Child Who Likes Animals could not cope with the sound of everyone’s voices around him; I held his ear defenders firmly on his head.

The undertakers hoisted the coffin to their shoulders, and started to process out down the aisle. As we had been told to, the family pews followed behind, through the middle of the other mourners, out into the cold of the church porch. Built in the 1970s, every surface of the church porch seems to be tiled, and at all times of year, whatever the weather, it is freezing cold. The cars were where we had left them, but flipped around.

“Do you want to wait and say thank you to everyone who came?” the Rector asked The Mother.

I was all for staying; it would have been good to shake the hands of anyone who didn’t want to go to the cemetery, or the buffet we’d laid on for afterwards.

“Oh no,” said The Mother, “I just want to get going and get it done with.” And so, to the cemetery, we went.

* One of my dad’s sisters once bought him a ticket for an event he was going to go to anyway, as a present. He was so insulted they refused to speak to each other for over a year.

** Barring pandemics, naturally. But it was the case then.

More on the spread of death

Or, the perils of trusting a map

Semi-regular readers might remember that, about a month ago, I posted about Greenbank Cemetery and its history, and looked at the available historic maps online to track its growth through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This weekend I went back to Greenback for the first time since I wrote that post, partly for the autumnal atmosphere and partly to see how much evidence is visible on the ground for the different phases of growth I identified on the maps.

The cemetery today is bounded by roads to the north and south, Greenbank Road and Greenbank View. One thing I discovered when writing the previous post is that, according to the maps, there was a phase when there were bands of allotments between the roads and the cemetery itself. The allotments seem to have been created in the Edwardian period; later, the cemetery was extended and swallowed them up. When I visited the cemetery this weekend I went to look for evidence of the northern allotment. The boundary between the cemetery and the allotments (not to mention the field that preceded them) is still clearly evident on the ground.

Former boundary of the cemetery, now a path

The area on the left has been part of the cemetery since, I think, its first expansion in 1880. The area on the right, where graves are packed in much more closely together, was a field at that point, then became allotments, then cemetery. If you poke around, there’s some signs that the edge of the cemetery might have been a haha-style sunken wall.

Possible former cemetery wall, with walling stones now used as makeshift steps

These four trees would have been on the boundary originally. I wonder if they were planted because there was a gate here from the allotments? There’s nothing marked on the map, though, and the map is quite thorough at including the cemetery’s paths, so they may not have been planted until the cemetery was extended.

Four trees straddling the former cemetery boundary - possibly a former gateway?

I said previously that the extension of the cemetery over the allotments “must have happened some time after 1938, as a 6-inch-scale map revised that year still shows the allotments”. That map’s available on the National Library of Scotland website; here’s an extract from it.

Greenbank in 1938, apparently

However, on walking round the area of allotments shown on this map, I quickly found that an awful lot of graves are of people who died before 1938. The dates on the headstones run back over ten years before that, to the mid-1920s.

Monument to John Smyth, d. 10th Feb 1926

Monument to Ena Sargant (d. 27th July 1925) and Patricia Sargant (d. 13th March 1925)

Monument to Jesse Jordan (d. 16th March 1930), Clara Jordan (d. 19th December 1930) and Agnes Flemming (d. 18th September 1924)

The 1920s-dated monuments run all the way up to the road, so it wasn’t a case of the cemetery taking over the allotment step by step either. Although it’s not unheard of for people to be reburied, or for people to be commemorated on headstones in spots they’re not buried in, there are so many 1920s monuments in this part of the cemetery that you can’t really use that explanation for all of them. So, unless I do at some point find some evidence that there genuinely was some sort of mass reburial and movement of graves in Greenbank Cemetery in the late 1930s, something like a Bristolian version of the building of the Paris catacombs, we have to conclude that this is a mistake on the map; or, more likely, that the map isn’t a full revision and the change in size of the cemetery was one of those changes in the real world that the Ordnance Survey didn’t bother to draw onto their maps at that point in time.

If I had copious amounts of free time, it would be very tempting to create a full catalogue of all of the monuments in Greenbank and their dates, and then develop a typology of changes in funerary design, spotting trends between different undertakers and stonemasons. It would be even more interesting still to then do the same for another large Victorian cemetery in a different part of the country, and track the regional differences. Sadly, I have nowhere near enough free time to embark on such a project. I’ll just have to wander around the cemetery, spot things like this occasionally, and enjoy the views.

Greenbank Cemetery

Greenbank Cemetery

In the lead

Or, two Hallowe'en posts in one week!

So, yesterday’s post was originally going to be this blog’s sole Hallowe’en post for this year. As it happened, though, the other thing I did yesterday was take The Children out to visit one of the local castles, which turned out to have at least its fair share of autumnal creepiness and gloom. It was Farleigh Hungerford Castle, just to the south of Bath, originally built in the 14th century by Sir Thomas Hungerford, first Speaker of the Commons. Nowadays it is almost entirely ruined, a couple of jagged towers propped up and stabilised by English Heritage concrete. The only buildings left standing are the chapel and associated priest’s house.

Farleigh Hungerford castle

Farleigh Hungerford castle

I said there was some autumnal creepiness: for one thing, the wife of one 16th-century owner allegedly spent years locked away in one of the castle towers, in top-notch fairytale fashion. The owner himself, Walter Hungerford, was later executed for treason, witchcraft and anal sex; however, how much of that actually happened and how much was just a result of being tangled in Tudor politics is rather difficult to tell.* A few decades prior to that, one lady of the house castle had reached her position by rather nefarious means. Agnes Cotell, wife of the castle steward, had her husband murdered and his body burned in the castle ovens so that she could marry the owner Sir Edward Hungerford. Presumably it was common knowledge; because only a few months after Sir Edward’s death, Lady Agnes and her accomplices were tried and hanged.

Farleigh Hungerford castle

Underneath the chapel, a small crypt contains a handful of anthropomorphic lead coffins, mostly adults with a couple of infants. They sit on shaped wooden boards, bodies presumably still inside them, behind an iron gate. Aside from their silver-grey colour the look for all the world like carefully-shaped human pies or pasties, their edges tightly crimped.

Lead coffins at Farleigh Hungerford castle

Lead coffins at Farleigh Hungerford castle

I was slightly disappointed that no ghostly emanations or mysterious mists appeared on the photos, to be honest. Upstairs in the chapel are a number of tombs and effigies, making me think (as always) of the E Nesbit story “Man-sized In Marble”, in which church effigies like this go wandering on Hallowe’en.

Chapel tomb effigy

Chapel tomb effigy

The older pair of effigies are firmly secured behind iron railings; maybe put there by someone else who knows their E Nesbit ghost stories. Maybe, though, the shiny, glossy marble pair will be getting up and going wandering tonight.

* He was a Parliamentary ally of Thomas Cromwell, and was executed alongside him. Which reminds me, I should really get a copy of The Mirror And The Light by Hilary Mantel, in which Walter Hungerford will presumably appear.

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.