The quiet pleasure of a cemetery…

Curious Rascal
4 min readApr 2, 2024

Cemeteries hold a soft spot in my heart. In my local, I learnt maths from the gravestones and to play cricket in the long grass in between. I watched sentimentally as evidence of a persons existence disappeared into the grasping weeds and felt poignancy as decaying flowers strewn by a loved one dissipated the emotion they once held tightly. Fast forward. Wherever we venture on holiday, I look for a cemetery to visit and I and a small group of like minded friends organise cemetery meanders in order to catch up.

It is difficult to explain why I take quiet pleasure in such ambling as it is a peculiar pastime. But perhaps it’s not as deviant as you would think. When I am bashfully drawn into a conversation on hobbies, it is surprising how others feel legitimised to chime in with my sentiment on boneyards. In earlier times, a visit to a one was a chosen leisure activity. It is only in recent decades cemeteries have faded into the periphery.

Cemeteries are a haphazard fusion of architecture, sculpture, wildlife, landscape, history, mawkishness and the deeply personal. They proffer to the observant attendant a mini biography of the locale. The word cemetery derives from the Greek ‘Koimeterion’ which means ‘sleeping place’. According to Historic England these venues are ‘gardens of the dead and memorials’. Beautiful, serene, morbid and mysterious. Placating not only those who have departed, but those left behind in their yearning; capturing the limbo between life and death.

As explained by Wikipedia, the first known cemetery is thought to have been in a Moroccan cave dated c14–15,000 years ago, but I have read elsewhere, over 100,000 years ago, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens placed bodies in pits carefully covered with dirt and stones. Societies across the world thereafter hosted burial locations from the ostentatious to the simple — pyramids, mausoleums, tombs, catacombs, burial mounds, pits and so forth. In medieval Europe, Christian churches provided land in which to bury the deceased and amusingly at the same time hosted markets, fairs and even encouraged grazing cattle which were thought to have an improved diet from grass grown on the departed.

Many centuries ago, dying was a significant element of an existence if you consider how short life expectancy was. Devastating infant mortality rates, poor hygiene, inadequate nutrition, violence or the epidemics that affected swathes of the population cut people of both sexes down in their prime. (As an aside, data indicates if you managed to survive past 30 in those times, your life span could be as extensive as present day).

In the UK’s 17th Century, as the plague took hold, plague pits were formed across London in which bodies were unceremoniously dumped. Even today digging is not allowed in the locations of these pits for fear of releasing ancient death. Grave clothes were common in those times with newly wedded women provided an outfit as part of their trousseau and children were elaborately attired if they passed away. 18th century body snatching was common either directly from graves in the deep of night or by charlatans posing as relatives of any deceased lying in state in hospitals or workhouses. It was a lucrative trade to sell these bodies to the medical profession which turned a blind eye to the sourcing of cadavers for dissection and knowledge.

As cities across the globe grew, the management of the dead was exacerbated, driving the emergence of rural graveyards. Population growth meant a corresponding rise in the number of dead; lack of city space to bury meant decomposing corpses contaminated wells and the water supply and bodies held in coffins eventually release gases which if not carefully leaked, exploded into fires causing significant damage to the local streets. Scenes of putrified bodies rotting on the ground and the stench of decay dancing with everyday life meant in many cities new cemeteries began to be built outside of city walls.

One such place just outside of London is called Brookwood which although not part of the Magnificent seven cemeteries of the Victorian era is staggering in size and grandeur. It encapsulates the societal norms of that period. I visited recently, arriving in relative ease, but in those times the common place horse and carriage took an inordinate interval to transport bodies the 23 miles from London. And so was born The London Necropolis Railway which operated from Waterloo station 1854–1941 carrying upto 2000 bodies and mourners a year to Brookwood. But this transport came with its own conditions. For a start there was disapproval over the consorting of the ranked social classes of the living on the train as well as the inter-mingling of those who had passed into the nether world. So separate waiting rooms and entrances onto the platform and train were constructed. Coffins were slotted into place by steam powered lifts also into first, second and third class hearse carriages. Finally to keep up this farce, the various classes disembarked at different stations in Brookwood. Despite this, a day trip to Brookwood was a leisurely day out. The stations in the cemetery were licensed and offered catering including afternoon tea.

This is but a mini insight into the psyche of days past. Consider how each cemetery, in every neighbourhood around the world has its own chronicle and ways formed from the interwoven tales of the laid to rest. Is it not fascinating? So worry less about being considered peculiar. Cemeteries are curious spectacles which in truth are not truly about death than a life lived. They have the capacity to engage not only your intellect but your sentiments if you are willing to open your mind and contemplate. And who knows, in the process, you could make a like-minded oddball friend like me!

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Curious Rascal

I'm keen to understand more of the world, people, history, science, making sense of the random because it helps me in life and improves my thinking.