Why Cemeteries Are Actually Pretty Cool

I am still ill (that’s a month’s worth of bronchial nonsense, coughing and bunged up ears if you’re keeping track, and I really hope you aren’t) but today I decided to wrap meself up and traipse up to East Finchley.

Why anyone would choose to go to Finchley has always been a bit of a mystery to me – the place seems very quaint and twee, considering it’s in London, but what do I know? Everyone who knows told me I would be an idiot to walk from East Finchley tube station to my destination, but it only took me ten minutes while listening to Bill Hicks bootlegs, so what do they know?

Of course, my destination was St Pancras & Islington cemetery. This, for the uninitiated, is one of those ginormous cemeteries set up in the mid-1800s when the Victorians finally twigged that letting little churchyards and cemeteries in Central London get clogged up with thousands and thousands of bodies might not be in the interests of public health. The book Necropolis is a fascinating telling of said subject and features some stuff about my nearest burial ground, Bunhill Fields, where Defoe and William Blake are buried, I think.

Anyway, I don’t really care about that. I sort of do, but not really today. It’s my granddad’s birthday today. It’s the first birthday he’s had since he died (and the fact that sentence makes perfect sense to me should indicate how cracked I am) and so I went to see him. It was the first time I’ve ever gone there on my own before, although I’d been intending to visit my gran, before my granddad died. I’ve been since Granddad died, but I was with my mum and it was the weekend after his funeral. Or I’ve been twice, I can’t remember. Twice, I think, cos there were headstones to commission, etc.

I got lost, of course, because I wasn’t paying proper attention and ended up by the crematorium, but it was fascinating. I made it to the bleak lawn that makes up the Catholic section, and first went to see the Driscolls. I always know how to find them because my godmother’s in-laws are buried in the same section and they have a fabulous unusual-looking Polish name (unusual at least amongst rows of Sheehans, O’Whatevers and Murphys and other Irish names of distinction). Then, I sucked up my courage and whatever, and went to my granddad.

The soil still hasn’t really settled since he was buried back on the 3rd May. There’s some shade there too, so the soil was soggy and turned to clay. There was a sheen of frost over it, and I quite foolishly thought “I hope they aren’t cold.” Of course, they’re all dead, so it doesn’t matter. Don’t look for realism or sense here, I don’t have them.

Anyway, I got a stone out of the Adriatic when I was in Pula last month, and I was just going to keep it. It’s the perfect shape for skipping, and it’s very, very white. I pushed some clay out of the way and wedged it into the space under the headstone, because my Granddad loved Pula, and the girl who shares his grave grew up by the bonnie blue Adriatic there. What would I do with a stone, you know? Again, foolishly, I hoped it might somehow give some of the Croatian sun to this frost-covered patch of grey North London.

Then, I stood there and cried like my heart was breaking. I only know my heart wasn’t breaking because I felt it happen months ago.

The funny thing is, cemeteries fascinate me. I realised this reading Necropolis, but I do. Humanity is there, and not just literally. There are class disctinctions – the people who have their family mausolea, people who have pink granite obelisks, people who have full length stone markers, people who have tiny little markers, the temporary wooden crosses for the newly dead, the over the top near-Chavdom of floral arrangements left.

You walk along and see a really, really gaudily decorated grave, complete with lanterns and flowers, bulbs and the rest… then you realise the picture on the cross is of a baby… and I don’t know about you, but I don’t have the heart to mock a family for making a fuss over that.

There’s the graves with gates-of-heaven or designed like books, there’s the fact that you know most people have bought the headstones from the same place just up the hill because designs repeat themselves and repeat themselves. Even in death, there’s a touch of the sheep about humanity. Sheep and vulgarity.

On a Friday afternoon, it’s not heaving with the living, but I’ve been on weekends when there are little old ladies, probably visting their husbands. There are families where parents have to explain to their children just why they’ve been dragged to a cold, windy place full of stones, and just why certain ones are meant to mean something to them.

I always liked going there, I recall. I like the idea of family and continuity, and I suppose my lack of fear of graveyards, my lack of fear of the dead served me well once I realised all the people I adored were themselves dead.

The only thing I don’t like is the way people refer to it as ‘passing on’ or even just the awful, meaningless ‘passing’ “When did he pass?” INTO WHAT, EXACTLY? I don’t like the way people get so floral with their language for death when they’d never do so for life. Awful, mawkish poetry on graves offends my sensibilities.

For your information, when I die, I would like the following:

If I die old and grey: “Clare Marie Worley shuffled off this mortal coil *insert details here*”
Or if I die amusingly or interestingly or whatever: “Clare Marie Worley bounced off this mortal coil”. I like the image of me bouncing off. Alternatively, the old John le Mesurier ‘popped his clogs’, but that’s a bit gentle-comedy for me.

I’ve been to my share of cemeteries – I went all the way to Paris for one, after all. I’ve been to so many war cemeteries that they’ve begun to unforgiveably morph together in my head. I went to Dublin and managed to get to my important one eventually. Next time I’m there, no doubt I’ll visit the other one, where 1 million Dubliners are buried. I’ve been to my share of these places, and everything of humanity can be found in them, if you just care to look.



Mind you, this entire Children In Need thing has been so phenomenally bad that it makes me want to stab myself (or Fearne Cotton, whichever) in the head with a rusty – WHAT? IS BOBBY FUCKING DAVRO IN EASTENDERS NOW? THIS COUNTRY NEEDS TO JUST BE DESTROYED! BILL HICKS WAS RIGHT ABOUT HITLER!

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One Response to Why Cemeteries Are Actually Pretty Cool

  1. annearchy says:

    I’m sure your grandfather, wherever he is, appreciates you visiting his grave. And I hope your bronchial crap improves soon. *hugs*

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