‘Slap my corpse if you want; mutilate it if you will. It matters not to me — I’m dead, I’m not using it anymore.’The Spectre of Jimmy Savile, 2020.
Cemeteries bring me peace. I think this is because, like every other member of my generation, I long for the Eternal Sleep. The dead have it easy—even easier than the rich, who have the money to never worry, and the stupid, who lack the brainpower to comprehend their own pitiful existence. Cadavers need not concern themselves about finding employment and paying the bills: they have their house, it is cold and wooden and full of worms, but it is theirs, and it is all paid off. The decomposing have no concerns about the ageing process or finding love. Or fret over being exhumed to face trial for historic crimes. Hey Jimmy, it happened to Oliver and it’s going to happen to you. Not that you care.
On this occasion I was in the cemetery for two reasons. One: to do some form of exercise to stave off the fattening process. A family member is getting married in the summer and, though I would prefer not to face them at all, I am set on not looking like a bloated thumb for the rest of eternity, nestled on the mantlepiece of his family home as he reflects on the happiest day of his life. The cemetery was some miles away, at the higher incline of this fair town, so a combination of distance and ascent would do well for the fat burning. All in all, the cemetery comes to about forty acres too, adding to the steps made and calories burned. Combine that with the weird tranquility that such a place generates and the fact that, for one reason or another, I hadn’t been to this particular cemetery for a number of years, it made for the perfect day out.
The second reason, which only came to me while on my walk there, was to search for someone. Now, as far as I can tell, nobody famous resides in this small town’s plot. Going around the place I did notice a ‘Viscount D’Arcy and Family’ in a large grave three or four times bigger than the ones surrounding it, but when I search that name all I find is links to some cheap sparkling wine. I assume somewhere along the way famous—or at least successful—people would find their burial in the Ipswich soil. Kings, dukes, counts, earls and barons might have their own private grounds, away from the common folk. But what of merchants and knights and courtiers and administrators and politicians? Once, though several centuries ago, Ipswich held relevance: it had a strong port and close connection to the Hansa, a strong merchant presence (Geoffrey Chaucer’s father made his name and wealth in this Suffolk hotspot). Today, not so much. Professor Hubert once wrote of Ipswich, in which he referred to it as ‘the home of those too dull to produce great works and of those too lazy to pursue their dreams’. I am inclined to agree with him. Another search tells me that a Russian prince is buried here, but as in Russia the title of ‘prince’ was handed out to every man with a pair of breeches and three-cornered hat, I do not take this to mean much. But all that is beside the point: I was not looking for a famous person, I was looking for a family member.
The problem with finding this person was that I was working with incomplete information. I knew his name, which is handy to know when looking for a gravestone. This ancestor happens to share the same name as my father and the plan was to re-enact the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come by showing my father the fate that is to come to him* if he doesn’t hand over my inheritance right now. I also knew the general location of the grave. All of my ancestors are buried in the same place, I am told, as if they had claimed a plot of land like a German would a bench next to the pool. The issue is that knowing a ‘general location’ in a large public area stretching many, many acres is not all that helpful. Central London is a general area. But if you ask me for directions and I say ‘it’s in Central London’ you’ll find me no help at all. I also did not know his age or when he died, a problem when trying to work around a mass plot of land in which there is no general rule for where to stick someone. Families reserve plots and then those plots might go unused for months, years or decades because the person refuses to die. A random sample of graves I passed had one headstone weatherworn to smoothness, no hint of name or age left on its surface; the one next to it a ‘beloved grandfather’ who passed away in 2009; a double-plot of husband and wife, one ‘tragically taken away’ in 1984, the other who ‘fell asleep’ in 1992; and a war memorial of a pilot who died in 1941.
Then there was the mess. Not simply the broken branches and the dead leaves on the ground, a consequence of the strong gales sweeping across the region. No—it was the weatherworn headstones, in some places broken completely. Walking along the plots there were even parts where the ground had sunk, as if those buried had re-animated and tried to claw themselves out before getting bored, or due to their skeletal bones becoming clogged with dirt and becoming unusable, like calculus teeth.
Between the disorganised chaos and it was impossible to find this ancestor of mine. That ‘general location’—walk towards the big tree, turn left at the church, it’s on a bit where the path begins to descend—ended up a separate cemetery in itself, filled with who-knows-how-many headstones of various ages and materials in various states of repair and disrepair. After two hours and several thousand footsteps of searching, I gave up. The grey slabs merged into one at a time, my vision tunnelled and all I could see was the green field, a brown bench, and a long, long, knee-high grey wall of alternating decades and centuries. This blasé attitude to burials turns honouring the dead into a logistical nightmare not even the likes of the Red Cross and UNICEF face when organising rescues in war-torn Yemen or in floods in East Asia. A better idea is to not allow the reservation of plots: bury them as they come in, then everybody knows who is where.
Or better yet—let’s stop burying people in their own plots altogether.
We now live in an environmentally-conscious age. This is different to all the other ages where people cared about the environment, because now ‘we’ are the ones who care, and ‘we’ are better at caring for the environment than ‘them’. ‘We’ don’t know who ‘them’ are, but ‘we’ know that ‘we’ are better than ‘them’. No man or woman needs their own plot for the rest of eternity. It takes up land, a precious, finite commodity and makes it unusable for the rest of time. Then that land is treated as a waste-fill—filled with concrete, woods, plastics, metals, chemicals and fabrics that do not decompose. To sully the ground is akin to marching down to your local grasslands and shooting an elephant. It was a controversy when Orwell admitted to doing it, and it’s an even worse controversy now. Don’t be an elephant shooter, don’t contaminate the ground.
Above ground is no better. It is visible in those abandoned, broken stones. Eventually, for any number of reasons, the dead stop receiving visitors. For all of the freshly maintained plots, with their bright new flowers on a weekly basis, the clean, ornate, polished headstone with its words of endearment, there are as many that have all the markings of a derelict house. The ‘beloved grandfather’ is cared for now, but in time those grandchildren by whom he was beloved will age and die. Will their children and grandchildren hold the same sense of attachment to a man they most likely never met. Blood is not so important as time. Soon enough people will stop visiting, the flowers will wither and die, the message on the slab will fade away to nothingness. In short, his future will be that of the unknown person by whom he resides. Time always wins. And when something always wins, it’s time to change the rules.
Let’s have a clearing out. Exhume those bodies—most are puddles by now, remove those materials that damage the soil beneath our feet and let’s move to a more conscious method of burial. Cremation has its charms, though the smoke it chimes out is a concern. Machines do exist that convert smoke into energy via some process I do not understand and will never understand, no matter how many times an Indian child on Youtube explains it to me. The best solution is, of course, the natural burial: one in which the body is not preserved with any harmful chemicals; is buried in a biodegradable coffin or even a sac of natural materials; and is not surrounded by a layer of concrete. Bodies decompose, they return to the earth and, after a decade or two, the plot is reusable. Finally a finite source becomes infinite, the earth gains precious materials to continue the Circle of Life. As for monuments: permanent ones are no longer required, as the plot becomes communal. A small stone, a piece of wood can mark a spot if one so chooses. Or plant a tree, and watch it grow, a very visual symbol of the ‘death breeds life’ mantra. But a specific location is no longer a requirement. Now, the general location works. ‘He’s buried here, she’s buried there, they are buried everywhere, because they are now with the world and the world is everywhere’. A poet would make a sonnet about how things are all one. He’d find a way to couple ‘the world has turned’ and ‘to the earth, he return’d’ in a way that would make sense in trochaic tetrameter or iambic pentameter. There is no need for a permanent marker because a permanent marker suggests ownership: and the world is not ours. Not anymore.
Or do a sky burial: throw the bodies out in the open and let the birds have at them. That is cheaper, still. I like the idea of that one.
*The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is, in this author’s humble opinion, the worst element of ‘A Christmas Carol’. The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present did all the work. By the end of his spell with Past, Scrooge is already on the way to changing his ways; by his time with Present, he has changed completely. Yet to Come does nothing beyond bully the man who is already psychologically changed. And if Scrooge were still his Scrooge-like self, then the visions he shows are of no use. Why would a misanthrope who hates people care if people speak ill of his passing or do not attend his funeral?