Book review: How To Read A Graveyard by Peter Stanford

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IT SEEMS slightly peculiar to describe a book about graveyards as charming, but that’s exactly what ­Peter Stanford’s meditative travelogue is.

How To Read A Graveyard

Peter Stanford

Bloomsbury, £16.99

Stanford thrives on a contemporary paradox: we have become squeamish about death (to paraphrase the undertaker-poet Thomas Lynch, whom Stanford uses as an epigraph, we have brought toilets indoors and put dying without the home) yet a visceral and spiritual attachment to graveyards persists.

Although he does not mention it, Tony Harrison’s V, one of the most important long ­poems of the late 20th century, absolutely captures the shudder we feel at the desecration of a grave. That there was public outrage when it was revealed that one child a day is buried in what is, to all intents and purposes, a charnel pit in south London should not surprise.

Stanford’s sort-of-pilgrimage takes him to ten sites: the Scavi in the Vatican, purportedly the grave of St Peter; the catacombs of St Callixtus in Rome; St Margaret’s, Burnham Norton, where he hopes to be buried himself; Greyfriars Kirkyard; Père-Lachaise in Paris (where Oscar Wilde’s and Jim Morrison’s celebrity tombs attract devotees); the misnamed “English” or “Protestant” cemetery in Rome (for Shelley, Keats, Gramsci and the pyramid of Gaius Cestius); Paddington Old Cemetery; the Deane Road Jewish Cemetery in Liverpool; the Commonwealth war graves at Etaples; Notre Dame de Lorette; Ayette and Thiepval; and finally the Chiltern Woodland Burial Park, an eco-friendly “forest of remembrance”. I felt a miniscule pang that he didn’t include the Glasgow necropolis, especially since, according to some anthropologists, the first cities, the first places of fixed rather than nomadic residence, were graveyards.

How we treat the dead is a good barometer for wider cultural and sociological changes, and this aspect of Stanford’s book is compelling. He quotes John Claudius Loudon, the great Victorian theorist and designer of places of internment: “The tomb has, in fact, been the great chronicler of taste throughout the world.” The graveyard, in his vision, could become a combination of botanical garden, architectural primer, history lesson and moral treatise. That so many graveyards have fallen into disrepair and neglect suggests that we are almost pathologically self-centred, trapped in vortex of ephemera, and unattuned to the glimpses of the natural and the cultural in the midst of our dwellings.

To walk around a graveyard is to read an anthology of the world’s briefest biographies, and the imaginative empathy this allows is a noble corrective. I’m moved each week by a headstone in our local graveyard, to one Mary Sooprianoff who died in 1942, which records that she was the “loved and devoted nurse in the family of the late Baron Julian Spicanowicz”, and I thrilled as a boy that one gravestone near us commemorated a young man struck by lightening. Another grave had the seemingly moving phrase “Au Revoir, not Adieu”: if one translated adieu literally as “[I commend you] to God”, it seems to be a sly way of saying “see you in hell”.

There could, perhaps, have been more on the epitaph, a literary genre which has fallen into almost complete disuse (Dr Johnson was thunderously offended by John Gay’s self-penned epitaph: “life’s a jest and all things show it / I thought so once; but now I know it”). That said, few words can be as haunting as those on the graves of unidentified soldiers in France, “Known Unto God”.

Stanford quotes a statistic that the majority of graves are untended after 15 years. In that light, one can understand the appeal of eco-burials, even if, as Stanford suggests, our desire for a kind of pantheistic anonymity may seem selfless, but denies the future the chance to contemplate what of us we wished to linger on.

By turns, Stanford is mordantly wry on funereal euphemism, pleasingly melancholic, and insightful on church ­history, the bureaucracy of ­decay and putrefaction and 
the shifting etiquettes of grief. For a book about our mortal end, Stanford manages to 
be curiously uplifting and ­affirmative. «