The Graveyard

On my last day in London, I went to a lecture on graveyards and then walked around the Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington. Here is me in the cemetery:

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(Is there a difference between cemeteries and graveyards? I’m guessing it’s another one of those instances in which the English language has two ways of expressing the same concept: one from a Latin root, one from Anglo-Saxon.)

The lecture was by a journalist who had researched and written a book on graveyards. He made the point that most of the people in large, elaborate tombs were now forgotten. They had wanted to be remembered, perhaps expected to be remembered, but a generation later, no one knew who they were. Their graves were no longer visited.

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And then he talked about the people who were remembered, whose graves were still visited. John Keats. Oscar Wilde, whose grave was once covered with lipstick stains from where people had kissed it. (It has since been cleaned and a glass barrier put up, but I think the kisses are now left on the glass?) Keats was so certain he would be forgotten that all he wanted on his tomb were the words Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. His friends added, This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a YOUNG ENGLISH POET, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone.

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Last year, I visited the graves of Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. (They are all in the same graveyard in Concord, Massachusetts). On each of them, admirers had left letters, flowers, small artifacts. When I visited the grave of J.R.R. Tolkien on this trip to England, I saw the same thing. Why do we remember certain people? Because they have given us something, and we care about them even in death. They live on for us through their words, their paintings. Their influence lives on, so for us they have never really died.

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I loved walking around Abney Park Cemetery. As you can see, it’s almost a wild space in London: the vegetation has grown up so. I was with friends, and we rambled along the paths, looking at the gravestones. My favorite was a tomb with a lion on top: I’ve included a picture of me with the lion at the end of this post.

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The lecture and walk really made me think about what I want to accomplish in my life, how I eventually want to be buried. Because, you see, I want to be one of the people who are remembered for having contributed something. I don’t care so much about a gravestone. It can be as plain as plain (although I’ve always liked the idea of an angel, because in a book I read as a child, two friends meet beneath a tomb with an angel on it). What I care about is the work, doing something meaningful.

We never know whether our work will be meaningful, of course. It could be forgotten. So much art, of heart and skill, is forgotten. What is remembered is the art that changes something, that touches us in a deep way, and who knows whether a particular piece of art will do that? All we can do is produce, keep producing, do our best.

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Not everyone cares whether or not they will be remembered after their deaths — quite a few people have explicitly told me that they don’t. But I would like my work to have that sort of impact.

Which means that it’s time to get back to work. I’m in Budapest, I have two weeks before I need to be somewhere else. And I have a novel to write.

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11 thoughts on “The Graveyard

  1. I don’t want to be buried. Perhaps it is a consequence of having lived my kind of butterfly life, never alighting anywhere for longer than a few years, maybe a decade or so, never putting down deep roots. I might “belong” in the place where I was born – but that was long ago and far away and there would be nobody left to visit my grave there anyway, so what’s the point (if you discard the somewhat philosophical aspect of returning to the soiil in the same earth from which I sprang…) Besides, I’m claustrophobic. Don’t put me in a small tight dark airless space, not even after I am safely dead.

    No, give me to the fire – and when I am ashes, give me to the water. Take me out to the sea, and sprinkle what’s left of me out onto the waves, and let the wind and the currents take me where they would. Let the atoms of my ashes lie there looking at the stars, and let my memory be written in the sky rather than at the feet of a weeping stone angel….

  2. Wow what a most beautiful “grave yard”. It is haunting the way the earth has re- claimed it, and after all, where do go but back to the belly of the earth when we die? I would love to have a stroll around in there. I have a thing for cemeteries and have walked many many times in the cemetery where all those great souls from Concord now lay.

    Oh how I would love to go and lay flowers of love and remembrance at the grave of JR Tolkien! His work has had a tremendous impact on my life. I am right now reading The Fall of Arthur, as if Professor Tolkien made an offering from the grave…his son Christopher edited it and released it on May 23rd….my birthday!

    I love your writing Theodora!! Thank you!

  3. For what it’s worth, I believe your work contributes greatly to the beauty of the world. (I speak of course of your writing, but that photo of the tree is absolutely stunning as well. Like a great hand reaching out of the earth.) Best of luck with the novel!

    I’ve always been partial to the idea of a burial at sea…particularly after reading Viking novels in middle school, though I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to be sacrificed alongside me.

    Did those books with the angel grave happen to be the Witch saga by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor?

    • Yes! I loved those books, and I still remember a poem from them. It starts, “By the shadows of the pool . . .” I need to reread them at some point. They were among my favorites as a child.

  4. Sitting on a bench, eating an apple and reading an Oz book in Lewiston, Idaho
    Pioneer Cemetery, with all the old souls around me; all the untold stories. Thank you Theodora for this reminder.

  5. Awww…your writing touches me always!
    It always leaves me with something to think about.
    I’d love to be remembered too, by things I wrote and the things I did…but I have to finish writing that novel first.

  6. My partner and I stumbled across Sylvia Plath’s grave a few years ago, while having a holiday in Hebden Bridge. We went hiking and accidentally found the Yorkshire village where she had lived with Ted, and in the graveyard was her simple tombstone, covered in little gifts — candles, flowers, stones. It was a bleak, eerie village, even on a bright sunny day, and there was something very moving about people coming so far, to such an obscure place, hiking up the moor, just to pay their respects. I left a pendant I was wearing, an amethyst in the shape of a moon. It felt like the right thing to do.

    For what it’s worth, when I moved countries five years ago, I could only manage to bring five books with me; one of them was In the Forest of Forgetting.

    • That’s lovely! I think I would have left something too . . . (And I’m so glad that you liked Forest. I’m hoping there will be another short story collection soon. I have enough stories — just need to finish the novel I’m working on first.)

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