by Stephen Roberts
In London you’re never too far from a Cemetery. Mausolea, monuments and headstones galore, Brompton was the first of the Magnificent Seven that I had the pleasure to visit (and only then in response to the horror evident on Sheldon’s face when he realised I’d visited none thus far). Surprised as I was at the revitalising sense of calm and peacefulness that the space imbued, it was very much the platonic, archetypal vision of a cemetery I had been fostering in my head up to that point.
Without any knowledge of cemeteries and their history, I set myself a challenge to subvert the cemetery cliché which Brompton typified; to seek something that would help me understand why we as people are so drawn to catalogue the lives of those we lose in stone.
My first look at atypical resting places was the study of the Skateboard Graveyard on London’s Southbank (which I wrote about in a previous post). This impromptu graveyard, born of the needs of people to immortalise their fallen, reaffirmed the desire to pin-down that elusive thread of humanity which links us to places of our dead (even when those lost are essentially inanimate planks of wood on castors). Strange then, you might say, that the realisation should come, not from study of cemeteries, but trying to find my footing in a late-night walk along the Norfolk coastline.
As fate would have it, mine and Sheldon’s trip to Norfolk coincided serendipitously with the summer Perseid meteor shower of August this year. With light pollution so pervasive, the closest look that at the stars I can expect to get as a Londoner usually comes in the form of ogling Paul O’Grady as he potters out of a local chip-shop on a Sunday night. But here at last to marvel was my first, truly unobstructed view of the night’s sky and what I saw amazed me.
Like anyone of my generation with a passion for science I’ve seen my fair share of BBC programming attempting – with some success – to turn us into a nation of star-gazers. But no amount of Brian Cox’s Stargazing Live or Sir Patrick Moore’s Sky at Night could have prepared me for the looming I felt from the scar of the milky-way hanging so low above my head as to be almost within reach.
I thought back to Christina’s fascination with the sea, much like her experience I couldn’t avoid turning inward upon facing this imposing spectacle of juxtaposed ephemerality and perpetuity – space debris burning up almost as quickly as it appeared before a backdrop of stars as they’ve almost always been (bar some which may have already burnt out). The connection I felt with that moment can be most beautifully and concisely illustrated with a poem by Robert Frost:
Fireflies in the Garden
Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.
The metaphor of the night’s sky as a cemetery of astral bodies, and with our own mortality as the life and death of stars (or even as the fireflies in Frost’s poem) is almost too easy to make. It is one which has been echoed throughout the traditions of civilisations across the globe, and one which has given me a greater appreciation for the human endeavour to ritualise our passing and venerate our ancestors.
Plato in The Republic insisted too that:
Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another. – Plato
Maybe this is what a cemetery ultimately affords us? Respite from counting out our time, a place to mark indelibly with ourselves and a chance to immerse ourselves in a space whose temporal rules do not have scope in our day-to-day lives.
It is poetic to think that all you need do to visit the greatest cemetery of all is to look up toward the heavens. From time to time – albeit between bouts of suppressing my inner Lisa Simpson, and the irrational desire to extinguish the lights that form London’s skyline – I’ll take comfort from a faint glimmer of the eternal canopy that has been looked upon by our ancestors since before cemeteries began.