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Swellboy on… cemeteries

Ruminations on the British way of death

Swellboy on… cemeteries

Image: Brijesh Patel

February 12 2011
Nick Foulkes

Death is a powerful experience, and while we are more likely than not to succumb to it at some stage, it is not a state into which the majority of us wishes to hurry. I suppose that the only upside is that death has a habit of solving all our problems, or at least that is what I thought, until I heard about how a crematorium and cemetery in Colchester had taken a stand against what are known as “Poundland” graves – final resting places bedecked and bedizened with wind chimes, soft toys, lights and plastic flowers.

“Essex man” was of course a demographic coined to account for the success of Margaret Thatcher, although the greatest Essex man of them all, the Second Earl of said south-eastern county, who among other things tried to launch a coup to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I, pre-dates the Thatcher period by some years. I remember that among snobs it used to be fashionable to make fun of Essex; however, this was just a failure to interpret the independent and demonstrative spirit so much a part of life, and now death, in this part of England.

I find cemeteries fascinating – the one in Havana, for instance, provides a visual history of the island, from the elaborate tombs of Spanish grandees to a grandiloquent monument to the fallen in the war in Angola. Part of the fascination lies in tracing the shifting attitudes to death and the visual language of remembrance: poignant broken columns to signify a life cut short, and so on.

I am not sure where to stand, except on the grave of course, when it comes to the Poundland school of necropolis decoration. I can understand that those who wish to see their loved ones off into eternity with a degree of solemnity and dignity might find the tinkle of wind chimes and the blinking of fairy lights a distressing distraction. However, this Poundland approach has a freshness and immediacy that could be said to keep the dead alive in the minds of those they leave behind, and it is a part of the modern culture of grief that includes tributes posted on Facebook as well as impromptu roadside shrines and displays of mementos.

Besides, surrounding oneself in death with the stuff one liked in life is hardly new; after all, in ancient Egypt one packed for death much as if one were going on a long holiday, cramming chariots, mummified cats and everything else into the tomb.

And although from time to time I enjoy a stroll around a cemetery to inspect the funereal architecture of the century before last, I do bear in mind that for all their solemnity, many of these too were once considered undignified. I am reminded of the depressing scenes at the end of Balzac’s Le Cousin Pons when the unscrupulous firm of monumental masons, Sonet, tries to sell an 11-year-old third-hand design that had first been rejected first by the widow of Minister, who had shuddered at the vulgarity of a monument representing the Three Glorious Days of the July Revolution of 1830. Revised and presented instead as allegorical symbols of the Army, Family and Finance, the design was next turned down by the grieving family of a banker. Finally, on the death of the musician and art collector Pons, the salesman hovering around the register office where deaths are recorded pounces and suggests “three full-length weeping figures on his monument, representing Music, Painting, and Sculpture…”

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