Dear Readers, as you know I have had a long relationship with graveyards. I find them an endless source of interest, in terms both of social history and of the wildlife that makes its home there. In ‘A Tomb With a View’, Peter Ross zips about between the cemeteries of the British Isles with an unerring sense of a story, and limitless curiosity about people. Whether it’s meeting a British-Nigerian drag queen in Brompton Cemetery, talking to a medium who wants to liberate the spirit of Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh, or being present at the funeral of Lyra McKee in Belfast, he is an evocative and compassionate guide. Take this excerpt, from McKee’s funeral:
‘One card read, ‘Words fail me’. That felt about right. We carve words on stone to remember our dead – the names and dates and some blandly appropriate text. The formality and finality of headstone convention takes all the mess of grief and loss and reduces it to something that can be said with hammer and chisel. Beloved wife of. Sadly missed by. But that wee card with its admission of the limits of language felt real. Perhaps these are the truths we should engrave in straight lines and elegant fonts. Words fail me. I don’t know how I’m ever going to get through this. I will never be the same again.
Lyra McKee lies in a corner of Carnmoney Cemetery, north of Belfast. She is wearing a flower in her hair. ‘
When he visits Highgate Cemetery, he talks to the gardener, the stone mason and the person who makes Karl Marx cookies for the gift shop. He tells how the Cedar of Lebanon that stood in the cemetery’s centrepiece, probably a hundred years old when the cemetery was opened in 1839, has finally died after being infected with Chicken of the Woods fungus, and how a tiny new tree has been planted in its place:
‘A young tree had been planted in the centre of the grass, where the old tree had been. Only three metres tall, it was dwarfed by its surroundings. Yet this new Cedar of Lebanon had a certain forlorn dignity: like a child at a parent’s funeral, it provoked pity, but also admiration for the strength one could already see building within. It might, with luck and care, grow to thirty-five metres and live for a thousand years.’
There is a very interesting and moving chapter on the outcast dead, which moves from Crossbones Graveyard (one of my favourite places) to the cillíns (little churches) of Ireland, where children who died before baptism and people who’d committed suicide were buried, because the church decreed that they could not be buried in consecrated ground. Often these areas were close to conventional graveyards, but sometimes they were in a corner of a field, or even under the flagstones of a house. There are the stories of the women who are working in Ireland to help reunite families with their beloved dead: Toni Maguire, who has suffered miscarriages herself, speaks of her work:
‘Sometimes I think, “Was this particular research laid at my door? Did I have to have that experience of miscarriage in order to take this on and relate to it?” I feel these women and babies have nobody to speak for them. But I will bloody speak for them’.
Ross visits the War Graves Commission Cemetery at Loch Shiel in Scotland, and also goes to Belgium where the work of recovering bodies from the First World War is still continuing. He finds the only grave of a woman buried as a witch in Scotland. He visits Haji Taslim Funerals in Whitechapel, and visits the Gardens of Peace in Hainault, where thirty four of those who died in the Grenfell fire are interred. Every chapter has a new story, a new way of looking at death, and life, and the ways that we deal with both. The book manages to be both diverse and coherent, which is difficult to pull off.
I really can’t recommend this book enough. And I’m not alone – you can read about other aspects of the book in this review here. But it’s probably best to read it yourself. You can buy it from one of my favourite bookshops in London if you’re trying to avoid Amazon.
Ross is the author of two previous non-fiction collections ‘Daunderlust – Dispatches from Unreported Scotland‘ and ‘The Passion of Harry Bingo – Further Dispatches from Unreported Scotland‘ which both also look interesting. He’s also written many pieces for The Scotsman and The Guardian. I’m very glad that I’ve made his acquaintance.
Next week, I’ll review my other favourite, and very different, book on graveyards – ‘These Silent Mansions – A Life in Graveyards’ by Jean Sprackland. These two books complement one another very well. But more of that next week.