Sunday, September 26

A Tomb with a View by Peter Ross Review: Cemetery Glory | Society books


OROn March 20, 2014, two women were walking through Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin after visiting the grave of a family friend when they found the body of Shane MacThomais, who had written books about the city and its cemetery. He was 46 years old and had been battling depression for some time. He was also, as Peter Ross puts it, “the best-known guide to the most famous cemetery in Ireland”, visited by 200,000 people a year.

MacThomais once said of Glasnevin: “The place is so vast that you could tell the whole story of Ireland ten times.” It is a city within a city; its 124 acres contain 1.5 million graves, more than Dublin’s current population. “I don’t think he saw it as a place where the dead were buried,” his daughter said. “I think he saw it as a lot of information stored around him. It was like a library. “MacThomais’s knowledge of Irish history was so vast, Ross writes,” that his suicide was compared to a library burned down. “He was buried alongside his father in the cemetery that had meant so much to him.

Ross’s chapter on MacThomais is deeply moving and full of wonder for Dublin’s most famous necropolis. MacThomáis found inspiration in that cemetery: “I look at all the tombstones and imagine all the people here, all the stories that are yet to be discovered and told. And it lifts my heart. ”In a way, Ross’s beautiful book is a tribute to MacThomais, a sincere attempt to bring cemeteries and their history to life.

Visitors to Karl Marx's grave, Highgate Cemetery, London.
Visitors to Karl Marx’s grave, Highgate Cemetery, London. Photograph: Julio Etchart / Alamy

Take a walk through a graveyard, read the names worn on the lichen-covered stones, and your “mind is hooked on the stories.” In Hampstead Cemetery, Ross stands by the grave of music hall star Marie Lloyd as she plays her 1915 recording of “A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good” on her phone, and “it feels like a journey. in the time”. In St Nicholas’s, Brighton, he finds the tombstone of Phoebe Hessel, the so-called “Stepney Amazon”, who was born in 1713 and joined the army at age 15, disguised as a man, so that she would not be separated from her lover. . Her true identity was only discovered when she was wounded by a bayonet; he lived to be 108 years old. As one historian in Belfast’s oldest cemetery, Friar’s Bush (in use since at least 1570) tells him: “You never know for sure where a headstone will take you.”

In Edinburgh, Ross visits Greyfriars Cemetery (to use the Scottish word), where the Skye terrier Greyfriars Bobby loyally sat by his master’s grave for 14 years and where he is now buried. In Rothwell, Northamptonshire, Ross ventures under Holy Trinity Church to the ossuary chapel, which contains the bones of 2,500 people, dating back to the 13th century. “It is a place where you can reflect,” says the vicar, who prays between the bones. In Hainault in Essex, he sees a Muslim cemetery, the Gardens of Peace, where several of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire were buried and where flowers are put off: “I had no interest in comforting or impressing; it was a waiting room for the day of the judgment ”.

In modern Britain, however, fewer people choose to be buried in a cemetery: three-quarters choose cremation. Visiting and caring for family graves is also becoming less common, although, strangely, tombstone tourism is booming; Highgate Cemetery will soon have a coffee. At Brompton Cemetery, Ross joins the Queerly Departed tour around plots of those believed to be gay, lesbian, bisexual “or something in between.” They pay their respects at the grave of the bohemian Italian heiress and bisexual, Marchesa Luisa Casati, who died in 1957 at age 76, and was buried with her taxidermized Pekingese: “He raised hedonism to the level of poetry, putting cadence on the decline , the verse in perverse “.

In Highgate, described by John Betjeman as “Victorian Valhalla”, Ross meets gravedigger Victor Herman, who has been digging graves since he was 13 years old and who also helps people choose where they will be buried: “They go to the limit of lying down on the plot and look at the sky, ”he says.“ It’s amazing. You pick them up and they shake your hand and they hug you. “A grave in Highgate will cost you around £ 22,000, one of the most expensive in the country.

Ross is a wonderfully evocative writer, skillfully capturing a sense of place and history, while bringing a deep humanity to his subject. He has written a delightful book.

• A Tomb with a View: The Stories and Glories of Cemeteries is posted on Headline (RRP £ 20). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.


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