Edinburgh’s Mount Vernon Cemetery lies high above the south east of the capital, with views to Arthur’s Seat and beyond. My dad having died when I was five, it’s a place I have visited regularly for most of my life. Both parents and my grandparents are there, uncles, and even my great grandmother who followed her sons from a hillside in Leitrim in the west of Ireland and now lies on a hillside in Scotland – the lot of the emigrant: to be buried in a land not of their birth. As a result, a visit to Mount Vernon, is regularly referred to as ‘going to see the family’.
But it’s more than that.
A walk along the paths of the cemetery is to pass by familiar references from many parts of my life: there’s the woman who introduced my parents, the wife of a pal, Hibs first captain, Michael Whelaghan, a guy with whom I played cricket, a priest I admired, my dad’s best friend. There are so many family names, often Italian or Irish, to whom I am linked through my long career as a teacher – faces remembered from parents’ nights, and sadly, a few former pupils too. On the regular route I follow around the place, there are gravestones now familiar, of people I never knew – phrases stuck in the subconscious: ‘A native of Donegal’, ‘Poet’, ‘Pilot Officer, aged 21’, the engraving of a footballer, a celtic cross, those who have become neighbours here in this place whom my family never knew in life.
For all these reasons, I have always found my visits to be more uplifting than depressing, an affirmation, if you like, of our place in the continuum of life and history.
And this, of course, applies in cemeteries where there is no personal connection, The Dean Cemetery, for instance, provides a clear insight into the social history of the emergent middle classes in Edinburgh during the 19th century, the deaths of infants, the twenty year olds felled in far flung reaches of the Empire, the importance given to titles, and there you may also come across the architect of the Tay Bridge, a Confederate General, Flora Stevenson, Elsie Inglis, David Octavius Hill, and Sydney Goodsir Smith. The same is true, of course, of other notable cemeteries in the city.
So when I realised Peter Ross was writing about graveyards in his newly released “A Tomb with a View”, I was curious to know if his take on these places would align with mine. He is a ‘twitter pal’ rather than a friend, but I enjoy his writing – which is always notable for its evocation of the people he meets. How would this translate to the realm of the departed?
Often when we make an acquaintance, we discover unforeseen connections, which are perhaps inevitable given the attraction of similar personalities, so I found elements of Peter’s book that fulfilled this function. He interviewed an actor, Robert Lloyd Parry who performs ghost stories from the pen of M.R. James, and it turned out he lived in Southport, where I stayed in my teenage years; there is mention of Great Blasket Island off the coast of Kerry, one of my favourite places, and of familiar and fascinating destinations in Ireland – Belfast’s Milltown and City Cemeteries, Dublin’s Glasnevin, and the crypt of St Michan’s, near the River Liffey, as well as oft visited Edinburgh sites.
But Peter’s craft with people is what brings humanity to this tome of tombs – he gives voices to the dead, and memories to the living, in his account of the folks he meets – the couple who marry in a London graveyard, the family who built a memorial to their son with a unique finishing touch, differing funeral rites – from Muslim to Christian to humanist. Marx at Highgate gets a mention, as do John Knox and Greyfriars’ Bobby, but often the sharpest and most haunting comments are related to the unknown and the unknowable – the piled up skulls in ossuaries, or the eighteenth century stones of faded inscriptions that once conjured up family traditions.
In Belfast, there’s musing about the British acceptance of death in the service of Queen and Empire, an underground wall to divide the dead of different persuasions, and, in London, Muslims talk about the cultural imperative for a swift interment, and we discover a man who has built a memorial for his young son, where, as well as family, visitors can sit and reflect.
We meet the American who fell in love with Edinburgh’s Warriston cemetery and like many others in these pages, devotes his time and organisational skills to clearing the overgrown pathways to enable visitors to access the past more easily.
From the islands to Hythe, from Dublin to Flanders, and from medieval times to the present, Peter fuses the dignity of the dead with the lives of the living, and we begin to understand that there are many reasons for going through the gates of a a graveyard.
There is a journalistic style known as ‘The Gravedigger angle’. When young journalist, Jimmy Breslin, was told by the New York Herald Tribune to get ‘something new’ on the funeral of slain President John F Kennedy, he hit on the idea of interviewing the man who dug the grave – and thus instituted a whole new angle on reporting.
In ‘Tomb with a View’, Peter has the opportunity to follow this code literally, as well as metaphorically, and his account of the family histories, and the philosophy, of those most important, but often ignored, contributors to the graveyard tradition are an extremely readable combination of the profound and the practical, the uplifting and the reflective, from those who wield the spades.
There are darker sections in these chapters, of course, but also a comforting realisation –for those above and below ground – that we are not alone.
Recalling the doyen of Cemetery tour guides, Shane MacThomáis of Glasnevin, his boss remembered: “He said the secret of a good tour guide was make them laugh, make them cry, tell them something they know, tell them something they don’t.”
That’s what Peter accomplishes in this engrossing and engaging reflection on final resting places. Through tales and interviews, inscriptions and traditions, ivy and trimmed lawns, he blurs the distinction between those of us still here and those who have gone before, which is perhaps as it should be.
Indeed, he’s a bit of a resurrectionist – you could say he puts flesh on the bones.
‘A Tomb with a View” Headline Publishing – Peter A Ross.