Let’s Do Lunch – in a Graveyard
When I tell people that, for four years, I have spent most of my spare time in graveyards, they always look a little alarmed. They shouldn’t. In the process of writing and researching my book Finding the Plot: 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die, I have visited scores of graveyards: grand and tiny, Victorian and modern, manicured and tumbledown. Not depressing, nor weird, they are fascinating places with so many things to notice: those names (like Myrtle, Ethel etc) you’d forgotten existed, intriguing epitaphs, and some amazing monuments which, in places such as Highgate in London, are works of art in themselves.
Here, then, is my proposition. Graveyards, far from being something that we should avoid, are actually ideal places to relax and, even, eat lunch. Many people do just that though, in most cases, it’s a picnic.
Maybe it is because my father died when I was 21, but I have never been squeamish about death and have always found cemeteries to be almost comforting in their quiet.
For one of the first things I learned is that cemeteries, despite their reputation, aren’t for the dead at all. They are for the living and full of the most amazing stories. I found so many of my 100 graves when I was stopped in my tracks while walking through a graveyard. That’s how I learned about Blondin, the funambulist who invented walking across Niagara Falls and is buried in Kensal Green in north-west London, and Frederick Leyland, a Victorian shipping magnate whose fabulous tomb, with its intricate copper floral scrollwork by artist Edward Burne-Jones in Brompton Cemetery in West London should be in a museum but, instead, is there for all to see.
Maybe it is because my father died when I was 21, but I have never been squeamish about death and have always found cemeteries to be almost comforting in their quiet. But there is no denying that there are certain things in graveyards that can be upsetting: I did not include any children’s graves in my book in my book for a reason. They are always sad, no matter how far in the past. Nor did I include many murders. I wanted my book to be about life, not death, or anything ghoulish.
It was Victorians who made the most out of death, saving for their funerals, planning their gravestones, choosing their funerary symbols (broken column, draped urn, clasped hands, circular snake) with care. And it is the cemeteries founded in that time, and I am thinking particularly of London’s “Magnificent Seven”, that attract the largest crowds. Abney Park in Stoke Newington in London is a Humpty Dumpty tumbledown world of graves that has become a nature reserve. Highgate, particularly the wilder western half, is full of bird and bat boxes, butterflies, flowers, a riot of greenery.
Two of my favourite graves – William Blake and John Bunyan – are at Bunhill Fields near Old Street tube in London. This is wherethe dissenters of days gone by were buried but now most of the gravestones have been tidied away behind metal railings (though not, thankfully, Blake and Bunyan). I have to say that I was surprised to find a very cool scene: hundreds of people, mostly young, some City types, some young mums, eating their lunches on the benches, reading, chatting, texting. the dissenters of days
It seems to me that the longer you spend with dead people – and, yes, even having lunch with them - the nicer they become. Death becomes us, really, if we can just adjust the way we think about graveyards.
Great graves to eat lunch by
William Blake, artist, d.1827, and John Bunyan, writer, d 1688, Bunhill Fields, 38 City Road, London EC1Y 1AU (nearest tube is Old Street).
Marc Bolan, rock star, d.1977, Golders Green Crematorium, Hoop Lane, London NW11 7NL. This lovely old crematorium also has old-fashioned tea rooms at the entrance.
Frank C. Bostock, lion-tamer, d. 1912, Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington High Street, London N16 0LH.
Thomas Gray, poet, d.1771, St Giles Church, Church Lane, Stoke Poges, Bucks SL2 4NZ
Henry Spencer Moore, sculptor, d 1986, St Thomas’s Graveyard, Perry Green, Much Hadham, Herts SG10 6EE (The Hoops Inn in Perry Green is a great pub).
Willy Lott, farm worker who appeared in John Constable’s Hay Wain, d 1849, St Mary the Virgin Churchyard, The Street, East Bergholt, Suffolk CO7 6TA and John Constable, painter, d.1837, St John at Hampstead Churchyard, Church Row, London NW3 6UU. (nearest tube Hampstead).
Postman’s Park, the memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice, City of London, King Edward Street, London EC1A 7BX (nearest tube is St Paul’s).
Mayomet Weyonomon, North American Indian chief, d.1736, Southwark Cathedral grounds, near London Bridge station.
Ann Treneman’s book, Finding the Plot: 100 Graves To Visit Before You Die, is published by Robson Press, £12.99.