I found the church; it’s not actually a church, it’s a chapel attached to a large 3.5 ache cemetery that’s nearly 200 years old. In burying terms, that’s a long time.
The day was beautiful; the first real spring day to arrive on the shores of Plymouth. Glorious sunshine bathed the world in light, we were blessed with famous cloudless skies, and where the wind had faded the sun had actually managed to warm. Coats and scarves could be abandoned without fear of hypothermia. That’s a heatwave this side of the UK. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get out and enjoy it, especially since the radio predicted another cold front in a few days. Check one on my March to-do list; off to find the church I had seen descending the hilly-hill of doom.
I didn’t think crows actually gathered in cemeteries; I thought that to be a cliche invented by movies and Poe stories, to add a level of eeriness to graveyards which doesn’t necessarily exist. Terns out crows enjoy the company of raised stones; they haunt the burial grounds with pride, cawing their presence to passers by like disturbed hosts. They bob along the rows of graves, plucking at the earth, and sit high in the naked trees as blotches on the branches, and yet they add no fear or ominous atmosphere to the space; they are simply part of the space, and they chorus among natural bird-song and the gentle rustle of wind through the bushes.
Before arriving outside the gates, I didn’t realise just how vast the cemetery actually was. A sea of graves stretches out over natural rises and dips in the landscape. Between the plots of graves pathways have been weaved as a means of navigating without literally treading on anyones grave. Of course, I was taking photographs of some of the headstones, and where the recent downpour had softened the earth, the grass and soil had become spongy giving the illusion the earth was going to give way. For the first few snaps I was terrified of falling through to someones eternal resting place, and I didn’t fancy explaining how I got there to a passer-by or the priest in residence. I was very careful not to get closer than I should.
Death is something nobody really likes to think about, and yet the mystery it encapsulates is the backbone of every major faith, and the force behind all fear. Graveyards are a place where escaping mortality is impossible; hundreds of years worth of lives, thousands of individual people whose lives have ended, stretched before a heaven they prayed would receive them. At once they lived, and just as suddenly they didn’t. Names of stones; theres nothing quite as potent to remind a person they carry an expiry date. However, walking through the labyrinth of graves, I didn’t feel frightened by that prompt; I felt peaceful.
As I entered the gates, I was immediately struck by ancient gravestones, engraved with old-fashioned script about the residents they memorialized, along side new marble structures, young enough to still be adorned with flowers from loved-ones. Amazing how in the stopping of time, so much comes together; the long-forgotten grief and the fresh wounds it carves, visible on the same patch on land. Throughout the cemetery, graves marked with beautiful statues, and others with a simple wooden cross stand side by side, men and women and children, and the very old and the (sadly) very young, and people of different races lay quietly side-by-side. The air is peaceful; the sunlight was probably something to do with the tranquility. Everything slowed down, as I peered for a moment into the lives of the departed; their names and their birthdays. I pondered who might have grieved for them. More so I wondered who paid for their gravestones. A thought struck me; each person at least had a gravestone, which their families had erected upon their deaths. No matter who they were, how much money they had, where they came from, or what they believed, the important thing is, they each had someone who loved them enough to grant them a place of remembrance. And then the differing graves didn’t seem so distant from each other after all. I hope you understand what I mean; I am writing this quite tired.
Several graves caught my imagination. Following the path down a set of steps I came across a row of graves facing the neighboring park. Noise here was introduced by barking dogs and laughing ramblers. I image the individual who lies beneath the wave shaped marker in this area, might have liked a spot close to twittering birds opposite a park route. His grave was covered with a raised bed, filled with white stones, and his stone indicates not only his name, but his profession and personality, all in a playful epitaph, reading
Here lies, Brain Courtney Chapell, Jazz Musician, “Lazy Bones … Just Sleepin in the Sun” 19.03.35-22.09.09
In my minds eye I can see a tall man on a saxophone, in a smoky blues room during the 50s. Jazzy notes float from his fingers, through the tunnel of the instrument, playing to a well-dressed crowd. ‘Lazy Bones’ they call him. He meets his wife in that dimly lit lounge; perhaps she designed this grave for him. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s probably the most unique grave I’ve witnessed. Here he can listen to possible buskers on the park-road, and hear children laughing. If in the instance of an afterlife we are able to listen to the surrounds of our grave that is. I’m unsure as to whether I believe that or not.
Plymouth has an unfortunate history of being bombed during the war. Ruins of the dreadful bombings lay scattered throughout the city; theres a church in town which acts a roundabout. At night it’s lit with coloured lights, but it’s missing its ceiling, and is really just a shell. I found a grave, a time-capsule almost, dedicated to a young family who died together when their house was bombed during the 30’s, a Mother and Father, and their three young children. That’s not a heart-ache I can even fathom; I live in a time where, despite the presence of war, I am physically untouched by it, and I am lucky to have no relatives, friends, or loved ones dedicated to a military service. Loosing an entire family in this way must be crippling. This particular family, the Clark’s, were survived by three daughters, obviously old-enough not to have been home during the tragedy. Devastating as this must have been for them, they lived. They lived on past their heartbreak; they married and probably had children themselves, they spread into different corners of the country and they kept living. Human beings can be so hardy, so brave and so resilient. How do I know this? Because underneath the names of those who died that single night, are three more, preluded by the words:
Also of the Surviving Sisters, Since Deceased, Whose Ashes are Interred Elsewhere
Each daughter has a new surname, and a respectable lifetime presented in their death-dates, and they have each found homes to elsewhere, where their remains are scattered for their loved ones to visit. Now they are all presented together, on one beautiful black stone in the middle of a grassy knoll. I smiled for them.
This grave omitted the common ‘re-uinted’ addition, but there are other multiple person graves like this with that single word etched at the bottom. The Christian understanding is that they are now together in heaven; a beautiful and valid proposal of what awaits us after-death, but even if this is not the case, I think the idea that we are all together again is real. Even if no second-life presents itself when he die, I think we rejoin the earth in a very literal sense. Decomposition of our bodies is an inevitable part of burial. To some that might sound insensitive and gruesome, but in fact it’s a natural process in which we give the nutrients of our bodies back to the planet. We feed nature with our physical being; trees grow using the water and vitamins we put back into the soil. Those who have been berried together here are re-united as the essence of their bodies floods back to the world, and they might nurture the growth of the same flowers and trees and grass. They become part of an untouchable organic process both peaceful and sustaining, which humanity so often struggles for. When I thought about this, death became slightly less fearsome then it once was.
A section of the cemetery is dedicated to the servicemen of WW2. A collection of slim, gray slates mark their positions beneath the earth; each stone presents three names, and has been stamped with a badge indicating their membership to the cause; not many are older than 17, and some were just 15 when they departed, probably from wounds acquired during their fights. Their graves are lined perfectly across a well-trimmed flat; at the right time of day their shadows are cast in humanoid shapes across the lawn. They appear to be walking onwards, don’t you think? All together, in a line, on a peaceful sunny day.
I’m not sure I should post this next one, but I think it’s something beautiful in its love and yet sorrowful in its reality. I’m not even going to try and relate to anyone who has lost a child, and I don’t wish to be insensitive or cold by placing this here. How can I even begin to image the cruelty of such a loss? I simply cannot. On a large hill at the centre of the Cemetery is a children’s grave site. I’ve decided not to show the grave in pictures here at this time. The death was, obviously, quite recent, and I don’t want someone closely related to that loss to stumble here, and become angry or sorrowful. However, if you live nearby, go to the top of the hill, and walk the path to the small children’s site; a very colourful grave awaits you, decorated with lights, and pinwheels and guardian angels, in memory of a little boy. Read the words on the stones and sit a while with him. Breath in the love which surrounded him in life. You’ll know it. May peace find his family.
There are a range of statues in the cemetery including two angles with no arms remaining, one prominent depiction of the Christian holy Mother, and two children. I saw a boy standing between two stones, and for a moment I thought a person was actually settled near a grave; I was taken aback when I released he was actually made of stone, however, when I went around to examine his face, I had lost sight of him. Other graves are marked with trees, and option I think I prefer, because of my aforementioned decomposing spiel. Cold eyes staring out into the distance, just doesn’t present as much warmth as a living, changing, growing tree, taking parts of me and forming bark and leaves, shading and crafting collages of green during long summer days. Apparently the volunteers running this cemetery encourage this type of memorial. Several people had opted to do this; most notably a woman called Anne, who is either the late Anne, or the grieving Anne, I was uncertain which. Anyway, her plague of dedication reads:
Gone are the Days we Used to Share, But in My Heart You’re Always There, Anne
A little cheesy, but I think if there is a place for such honeyed sentiments it is certainly in mourning. Another tree had been given the mystery dedication ‘Max’s Ginko’ and then a date with no explanation. I felt perhaps I had stumbled into a private joke concerning two old friends, or lovers, or siblings. We’re not meant to understand everything, but emotion is so easy to discern from words, its a wonder more people don’t become writers.
Stepping out through the chapel (which is only opened during ceremonies, and unfortunately keeps its large green doors closed otherwise) I felt like I was moving from one world to the next. The sound of the road became clear again, and cars were parked up near the community centre next-door. A view of the city appears over the descending hill to the gates, and the crows adamantly caw their goodbyes from where they perch on moss covered stones, whose names I am unable to read. I didn’t think finding this place would offer me such a rich range of experiences, of thoughts and feelings, and relax some of my natural apprehensions about death.
Seems to me death is just a quieter form of living.
Also, if by chance you are a relative of any one mentioned in this post, and you feel my presentation of your loved one is unfavorable, please know I mean only respect, and I am happy to remove anything you deem unsuitable. Contact me via the email available on the ‘about’ page, and I will make the necessary adjustments as soon as possible. May the Buddhas bless you.