The Cemetery Reopened

St Pancras and Islington Cemetery

Dear Readers, before we get started on my cemetery walk here is an update on yesterday’s Pigeon quiz. The winner was Alittlebitoutoffocus with 8 out of 10, closely followed by Andrea Stephenson with 7 out of 10. And an honourable mention to Vinod, who pointed out that the Eurasian collared dove’s species name, ‘decaocto’, is one interpretation of the bird’s call, so that it is in effect saying its own name. Thanks Vinod!

How did the rest of you get on? Would you like a bit more time to have a go? I could always postpone the answers for a day or so…just let me know.

And now, back to the business in hand.

Dear Readers, when I got back to London after the death of my Dad in Dorset a few weeks ago, I found a lot of solace when I walked in our local cemetery, St Pancras and Islington. As regular readers will know, it’s a wild and woolly Victorian spot, with areas of manicured graves constrasting with  paths meandering through hornbeam and ash, oak and horse chestnut. Although Dad isn’t actually ‘here’, I could feel his presence very strongly.

Imagine my distress, then, when the cemetery was closed a fortnight ago. The reasons were unclear, but the local consensus was that it followed a barbeque at one of the gravesides, with people sunbathing and drinking. The police were called, and apparently the whole thing got out of hand, which is often the result of a  combination of beer and sunshine . There are very few staff to cover the whole of the cemetery, and their role shouldn’t be to put themselves in danger. I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised to hear that the place was being closed to all except those actually attending a funeral or cremation.

The people who visit every day to tidy a grave and to sit for a while beside the last resting place of a loved one were very distressed. For many people a walk among the trees and the flowers brought a calmness to this difficult time. But we were prepared to wait and see what happened.

And then, there was an announcement during this week that the cemetery would be open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the week to those visiting the graves, and for the same hours at the weekend for all visitors. Hooray! It won’t be the same as sneaking in for a quick walk at 7.30 a.m. before work starts, but it’s much, much better than nothing. And so I was excited to head off today and see how the place was doing in my absence.

Cow Parsley

The cow parsley (Queen Anne’s lace to some of you) was in full flower, and how splendid it looks with its feathery foliage and pristine white flowers. I think I should find some seeds for the garden, it feels like the epitome of the woodland flower to me.

Lesser celandine (Ficaria verna)

The lesser celandine is still in full flower in the darker parts of the cemetery – in most other places it has already gone over, and the foliage is starting to disappear.

Bluebells, native and hybrid

There is a mixture of bluebells, small patches of native ones and a vast mixture of hybrids in all shades of white, pink and pale blue. There is a lot of nonsense spoken about bluebells, and so I feel I must revisit the subject tomorrow, to see what the latest thinking is. Getting the balance right between protecting our native wildlife and accepting that we live in a changing, globalised world is often a difficult one, so let’s see what the experts have to say.

And to return to my lovely peaceful walk in the cemetery, I am seeing orange-tip butterflies all over the place, and this is the reason.

Garlic mustard (also known as Jack-by-the-hedge) is the foodplant for the caterpillars of the orange-tip, who particularly like the seed pods. 59 other invertebrate species are also associated with the plant, which is probably why it isn’t a huge problem in this country, unlike in North America where it doesn’t have so many insect predators.

And I love the goldilocks buttercups, with their tatty little flowers, every one of which is missing at least a couple of petals.

If you know your way around the cemetery, it’s easy to find lots of quiet corners and unexplored lanes.

But in the main part of the cemetery it is absolutely rammed. I have never seen it so busy: Sundays usually have a few visitors, but there are minor traffic jams and cars parked all over the place. It goes to show how much people have missed being able to visit their beloved dead, and how anxious they are (at this time of high anxiety) to follow their established routines, and to make sure that honour is done to those who have gone before. We are, I think, in the middle of a situation in which many of us are thinking more about mortality, and what it means to be alive. We are struggling to find purpose, and to do the right thing at a time of great uncertainty. Of course, we never really know what’s going to happen next in our lives, but when things are ‘normal’ we’re able to convince ourselves that we have some power and control (though how much depends on our circumstances and where in the world we live). Now, nothing is clear.

I wonder what will have changed for us all when our various lockdowns are over, when restrictions are lifted and we emerge, blinking, into the new ‘normal’?

What I would like is for us to take a step back from the cult of individuality that has ruled for the past fifty years, and for us to recognise our interdependence and connection.

I would like us to do honour to those who have continued to work at great personal risk during this crisis: the health and care workers, the teachers, the people who work in shops and run our transport systems, the people who have kept the lights on and the water and sewage systems going, the people who have made it possible for us to work from home by keeping IT infrastructure going, the dustbin men and the street cleaners, the post office workers and so many, many more. And by ‘honour’ I don’t mean clapping on our doorsteps every Thursday (though this has its place) but by supporting them in their struggles to be paid fairly and to have decent terms and conditions.

I hope that we can do honour to ‘nature’ by ensuring that it survives.

I hope we can do honour to those from other countries who have put their lives at risk in our hospitals and buses and care homes by making this a country where they can feel welcome and where they can build their lives.

And I hope that we will never again measure the value of a human being’s life according to whether they had ‘pre-existing conditions’, their age or their level of disability.

Out of the last major challenge that this country faced came the National Health Service. Who knows what could be born out of this pandemic? One thing’s for sure. Life for many of us will never be the same again.


2 thoughts on “The Cemetery Reopened

  1. Anne

    I don’t think that the life as we knew it before the pandemic will be exactly the same either. I have enjoyed your exploration through a place that is both familiar and comforting to you – lovely to see the plants.

  2. Andrea Stephenson

    Well I did better than I thought on the quiz! I haven’t been back to our cemetery since it re-opened but I imagine it will be filled with cow parsley and bluebells right now.


Leave a Reply