Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Feeling Grave


Whenever I wander from the topic of books, it's inevitable that I'll leave some of my lovely literary readers behind - just because you like books doesn't mean you'll share my taste in CDs, films, cakes, cats, donkeys... but today's post might alienate even more than usual!  Because I'm going to write about graveyards.  Well, not really graveyards-plural, just graveyard-singular: Holywell Cemetery.  It's attached to St. Cross Church in Oxford, where I used to worship, and which closed down three years ago (see my post here.)  I had half an hour to spare the other day, so off I went with my camera...



I often sought refuge there as an undergraduate - being a country boy stranded in a city, this was the closest I could find to home.  Holywell Cemetery has a policy of leaving different areas untended in various cycles, for reasons to do with wildlife etc. I believe, so there are always plenty of beautifully overgrown areas.


But my love of Holywell Cemetery doesn't lie entirely in its rural feel.  A lot of people find graveyards spooky or disconcerting.  Not I.  For me, a deep peacefulness pervades them.  Entering a cemetery, one seems to have escaped time.  Those born in 1650 lie alongside those born in 1950, all equal. 


But what really fascinates me, having said that, what is above ground, and the infinite variety there.   Tombstones.  The lasting monuments to individuals really were varied - through the years, but also according (I assume) to wealth.  Some were huge and ornate:


Others were tiny; you can barely see this one hidden amongst the brambles.  It made me wonder - did that person (name now illegible) die after everyone they knew, or were their grieving family too poor to afford more than this small slab?


I think that's what I treasure about cemeteries - it's like rows and rows of book covers.  You can deduce a little, but only a little.  Unlike books, the stories aren't waiting to be revealed - tombstones offer all the information there is, unless one is willing to bury oneself in record offices.  There are mysteries in each epitaph - what, for example, is the story behind this?


'Martha Hawkins.  Died August 11th 1849.  Aged 18 years.'  The very barest outline of a life, but why so young at her death?  Who chose this inscription - who mourned Martha's passing and celebrated her life?  All these brief clues to lived lives.  I could read tombstones all day - the whole spectrum of emotions are there.  Joy, grief.  Regret, triumph.  Simplicity, complexity.


Above all - love.  The final words that will be dedicated to someone - and the words they choose hold such importance, often amongst such simplicity.  Unsurprisingly, I was especially touched by those triumphant headstones which proclaimed Bible verses.

 



Who could fail to be moved by these three words?


'Toby Kay. Died at birth'.  There was another similar tombstone, for a baby who had lived for 18 days.  It also had a little engraving of a toy duck.  But since it was only a few years old, I thought it best not to take a photo or post it here, since the grief is still fresh.  Other markers tell their own tale of history:


The circular plaque reads: 'This cross near his sister's grave stood where Ronald rests in the R Berks cemetery, Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium.'

Nor is Holywell Cemetery without its fair share of famous 'residents'.  Two Kenneths might be of interest - Grahame and Tynan.




And then, of course, there are some tombstones that are simply beautiful, and examples of fine artistry.  The first of those below was perhaps my favourite that I saw - not as ornate as others, but perfectly appropriate for the setting.





If you are ever visiting Oxford, I recommend that you make time to visit Holywell Cemetery - and not in a rush, either, but slowly and contemplatively.  Stepping into the graveyard, and walking between the tombstones, time seems to stand still - or simply not to matter.  Time has melded all the decades into one, here.  Beautiful craftsmanship sits alongside the simple and unassuming.  Lengthy epitaphs are next to those striking by their brevity - which, in turn, stand by those which time has rubbed illegible.  Each headstone reflects a life, lived for a hundred years or a single day, and each of those lives reflects outwards to mother, father, siblings, spouse, children, grandchildren...  It is a beautiful place to be, and not just for the eye.  It is beautiful for the spirit and the mind and the soul.


23 comments:

  1. Lovely post. The man I adore, Horton Foote, once stood in a graveyard among the headstones of generations of relatives and said something like: "How could anyone feel afraid here?"

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  2. Beautiful and touching thoughts.

    My mom is in a nursing home -- last stop before the grave -- "Waiting for God." I watch the young nurses take care of her and to them she's just an old lady. They can't imagine she was ever anything else.

    Your post reminded me of this picture I once saw. It was of an old man's ugly gnarled feet. The caption read something like: once these were the soft feet of a beloved baby -- feet kissed by doting parents.

    This "life deal" is pretty fragile.

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  3. While in college I would go during the spring and study in a famous cemetary here called Hollywood Cemetary. There was a wonderful grassy knoll from which one had a fantastic view of the city.

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  4. I love cemetaries for the same reason as you, and thus this post delighted me. :)

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  5. This is a lovely post, and you certainly haven't alienated me, as I love old cemeteries (I do have a Gothic disposition!) I'm especially fond of the 'Magnificent Seven' in London, Highgate, Nunhead etc., and the photo of me that appears on blogspot was taken at a Kensal Green Cemetery open day where Victorian mourning dress is encouraged. I don't know Holywell, but as my daughter's up in Oxford as a lst year student, I might get the chance to see it.

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  6. Graveyards have a hold on us. We shall all end up in one eventually ... Or in an urn ..

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  7. Ooh how exciting! This brings back memories of when I used to walk past every day to get to the English Faculty! I also read lots of Dorothy Sayers at the time and was really excited when I realised that this was the church where Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane married! I get the impression you're not that fond of them though! It's really lovely to see your pictures, and the contrast between some of the graves is fascinating. You should do more posts like this!
    Katie.

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  8. I love graveyards too Simon...you've described exactly why I love them perfectly. I know some people find them morbid but really they are just lovely peaceful places, I think, where as you say, time comes to a standstill. What a beautiful post.

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  9. I'm so glad that I am not the only person who likes graveyards.
    I find them peaceful and excellent place to take time out from the busy world. I too love to think of the people gone before.

    Funnily, I think this may be hereditary as my Mum spent an entire summer in a graveyard deciphering one inscription.Aged 6, I drew it in my diary ' Mummy on a gravestone' - I wonder what my teacher thought!!

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  10. I wasn't put off by this post at all. One of the beauties of book blogs compared with, say, blogs on inland waterways is that, like books themselves, they can tackle any aspect of life, or indeed death. (With no disrespect intended to lovers of canals, who may well point out that their favoured transport corridors also have many stories to tell.)

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  11. I love (British mainly) graveyards! I'm in Oxford quite often these days (once a month-ish) so if I'm not so rushed I'll take up your suggestion. Sadly my next visit (to an electron linac) will not allow me time, and the one after that I have to rush off to catch the plane to Geneva and CERN. perhaps the one after the one after that!

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  12. What a beautiful graveyard! Like most of the other commenters I am also fond of graveyards- I think overgrown headstones have an aesthetic appeal. I also like the way graveyards seem to be a record of small, personal histories, which sometimes tie in with larger histories. So I enjoyed your thoughts on graveyards, and the photos.

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  13. I understand your fear of alienating readers--in my single days I had more than one first date come to an abrupt end when I listed graveyards among my interests. I grew up in the American South, and my extended family always had our annual reunion at the pre-Revolutionary War (what counts as old in the US) church where many of our ancestors were buried. My cousin and I would wander among the stones, reading inscriptions and speculating about lives while the adults tidied the graves and decked them with flowers. I adore old cemeteries in the UK, and have some special favorites in the Southern US. In Hattiesburg, Mississippi, there are a large number of graves of 19th c. yellow fever victims. One small area is fenced off from the rest: it contains the graves of a dozen Catholic nuns who came up from New Orleans to nurse fever victims. The predominately Protestant town had that area sanctified as a Catholic cemetery for them.

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  14. Very thoughtful post, Simon, and fantastic photos. Thanks for the break from daily life with a reminder of what is truly important -- to love and be loved.

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  15. I pass through a small grave yard every day with winston often wonder who the people where ,all the best stu

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  16. A lovely post, thank you Simon, I really enjoyed it.

    I think there's probably a high correlation between lovers of cemeteries and lovers of books.

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  17. I also adore graveyards, and spent a lot of rainy Sunday afternoons in them with my dad who was gathering our family tree at that time. I *really* like graveyards in England et al, because of the history and the actual grave stones have a story a lot of the time. In the graveyards here in my town in Texas, the stones are all lying flat on the ground, and it doesn't have that calming effect. (Plus it's five hundred degrees and no shade.)

    I think people think I am strange to like graveyards but they are very peaceful places. The graveyards in New Orleans are like little cities... a very different experience...

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  18. Ah, nice post. I have a writing friend who wanders through graveyards to get inspiration for her stories as she attempts to guess the history behind each tombstone. They can be wonderfully relaxing, as you pointed out.

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  19. Beautiful pictures - and words. It was like a guided tour and now I want to visit it for real. And by the way, belated happy birthday.

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  20. I spent quite a bit of time in cemeteries during the year (2006/7) I lived in England. In my local cemetery, the churchyard of St. Nicholas Church in Kenilworth, I found a stone designed by Eric Gill, who designed the typeface Gill Sans—the official typeface of the BBC. You can see a picture here.

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  21. A lovely post - and you have found out that many of your followers love cemeteries too! I think the last beautiful terracotta angel memorial you posted is by G F Watt's wife Mary, made at the Compton Village Pottery in Surrey. The graveyard there is well worth a visit, as is the amazing terracotta cemetery chapel.

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  22. Wonderful post Simon. I can join you with your thoughts on graveyards as I have always found them peaceful and indeed I was a tour guide at Highgate before I left London. I used to love showing people around this 'other world' but not as much as I did wandering about it alone, one of the perks once you have trained.

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  23. I absolutely love cemeteries! The older the better! Such gorgeous headstones in this one! My son just bought his first home and there is a small cemetery on his land. It has 4 graves in it with people born in the 1750's, before we were even a nation! They are going to clean it up and keep it up. Thanks for sharing this post!

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