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What does it profit…….

February 17, 2014


As a city, Edinburgh is famous for its nooks and crannies and secret surprises in closes and cobbled lanes, but one of its most interesting sites is anything but hidden away. In fact, you could say that the city’s Dean Cemetery is monumental in its appearance.

From the mid 1840s onwards, this graveyard has gathered to itself the great and the good of Edinburgh society, and in many cases features gravestones, pillars, and stoneware to celebrate their lives on an appropriate scale.


You can find Lord Cockburn here, Playfair, Elsie Inglis, Thomas Bouch whose design for the Tay Bridge contributed so much to McGonigall’s poetic notoriety, David Hill, the photography pioneer, and even a Confederate General.


However, it is away from the famous and illustrious that the true interest of this cemetery lies.

As is the case in all burial grounds, the fascination exists in the fact that those below the ground inevitably reflect contemporary society above ground, and, for that reason, as well as the tombs of the famous, and the variety of monumental architecture, a stroll through the Dean gives a thought provoking glimpse into the second half of the 19th century.

By temperament, politics, and background the Victorian moneyed classes mostly represented here would not be my ideal role models – but sometimes, and hopefully, with humanity, there are times when other concerns take precedence, and when prejudices or preconceptions should be shunted to one side.

A walk through the cemetery, halting to read any gravestones which take the eye – through word or design – is enough to compose an impression of life in Edinburgh’s 19th Century upper classes which is not always as predictable as one might imagine.

This was the class which made the Empire work – the diplomats, soldiers, businessmen, clergy and civil servants, who helped paint the maps pink – but that weight on their familial shoulders wreaked a certain amount of havoc.

These stones tell of men who died before their time – often in distant lands and of strange diseases. Many had married women much younger and had thus left behind 30 or 40 years of widowhood. Many children died in infancy, and almost as many in their late teens or early twenties. Disease, it seems, and surprisingly to me, paid no respect to wealth. Cholera, Dyptheria, influenza and typhoid built a black empire of their own – and it wasn’t class-based.


Another unavoidable theme which runs through these fading inscriptions is the reminder that Empire is based on war and that war takes the young. It’s not unusual to see a father and perhaps two or three sons all killed in action from the Far East to the Balkans, through the Crimea and Africa, to the subcontinent, Ireland, France, Belgium and Germany. There are young men here who died on horseback and those who died in planes and tanks. There are many parents whose children predeceased them not yet in the full bloom of their youth

“Empire” and “exploitation” are words which fit well together. However, walking through The Dean, it always seems to me that the exploitation of those in colonial lands was not the end of the matter.

Undoubtedly, those who ruled the Empire became exceedingly rich and lived comfortable lives – and there are a fair few imposing monuments in this cemetery reflecting their standing and wealth. That wealth was, of course, achieved on the backs of others – workers and indigenous people in colonial lands – and that history has been well documented. However, what is less often remarked upon, but what becomes obvious from even a casual walk through the Dean, is the price paid by those in the middle classes who job it was to manage the Empire, to service and administer it, and to support the rulers.

Without a doubt, the people buried in this cemetery led a comfortable and moneyed existence, but it would be ignorant to overlook the price they also paid for that sense of status and position.

Strangely, given the final and terminal state of those in the graveyard, reading the chiselled inscriptions, one gains a sense of displacement. Places of death and birth are seldom the same – and this in an age when mobility would not be seen as widespread. Clergy die far from their hometowns, civil servants in India, and all parts of Africa, career soldiers in army barracks in all parts of the world; doctors die young trying to subdue various epidemics, and wives and babies die in childbirth far from the land of their family’s origin; many stones carry memoriams of folk interred abroad. The sense is of families torn apart, shifted, at the service of the state, and driven by a sense of something which fell somewhere between service and duty.


This was a class of Edinburgh society who felt required to fulfil expectations – be they military, commercial, medical, religious, governmental or civic. There was not much room for freedom of personal choice, nor, I suspect, favourable conditions for familial affection. This is not to defend the imperial mindset, merely to point out that it came at a price that was paid by more than just the obvious victims.

It seems strange to me that different cemeteries can produce different moods. High over the south of our city is Mount Vernon where a good few of my family are buried. It was opened just a few years later than the Dean,but far more of its graves are from the 20th century. It possesses many immigrant graves – Irish, Polish, Italian and others and, by and large, it seems to celebrate the ‘ordinary’ lives of ‘ordinary’ folk, whose passing is marked by inscriptions of love and respect, of prayer and familiarity. On a clear day, pausing among the graves to look down over south Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat, and the distant Forth, it is possible to sense a kind of affirmation of kind lives well lived and much valued.

By contrast, behind its high walls, the atmosphere of the Dean is dank and damp, with moss and leaves underfoot. True, there is handsome landscaping and constant birdsong – but there are limited views to be had from this necropolis; the visitor’s eyes are drawn to the obelisks, plaques, vaults and crosses which demand recognition of the duty performed and the service given by the families who lie within.


The names are almost unremittingly Scottish. There are, of course, gravestones of a happier, lighter nature, and in good number.


However, those are not the memorials which colour one’s general impression. Overall, one senses a kind of desperation that their achievements be recorded here and recognized; a consciousness that later there will come by people who will read the inscriptions and marvel at the drive, reach and success of these generations.

Maybe it merely reflects the formalities of the age, the expected means of recording the lives, and respecting their achievements. Perhaps this was the final chance to edge ahead of neighbours or contemporaries in the race to contribute more to the Imperial project. Or perhaps the acknowledgement in Edinburgh was felt necessary as so much of the success had been hidden in distant lands.


Whatever one’s politics or take on history, it’s difficult to walk through the Dean without gaining an almost overwhelming impression of the energy of these people, their dedication to Empire, their sacrifices, and their grandiloquent sense of their own importance.

I’ve always been aware of the commercial and political power that drove the middle classes of the Capital in the 19th Century, but had seldom stopped to consider what price, if any, they paid for helping to paint the map pink. So many of the deaths recorded here are premature, or distant, or unfathomable. The face of the Empire may have been slow to change, but those who kept its wheels rolling seem to have been in a state of constant flux, away from their families and familiar places, facing war and disease, moving around a world they could hardly have understood, meeting premature and unexpected death with a kind of grand phlegmatism.

There are many, many biblical quotations inscribed in the moss and ivy covered stones of this cemetery, but the one I have yet to discover is:
“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world……”

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 17, 2014 9:38 pm

    Often think the same things walking through Edinburg’s cemeteries.

    Definitely a place for reflection.

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