Saturday, 15 September 2012

Dead funny


Last week I was unable to get to the Gallery of Modern Art (or One and Two, as we must call them now), along the Water of Leith.  There was a notice on the path saying access to the Gallery was blocked by a landslip, which made me think of whole hillsides tumbling onto the Karakoram Highway rather than a slight inconvenience off the Belford Road.  However this turned out (as detours so often do) to be a good thing, as my new route took me past the gates of the Dean Cemetery.  
I like to think most right-minded people like a good cemetery, though we seem to have lost the art of designing really pleasing graveyards.  Perhaps this goes with modern attitudes to death:  in life, it would appear, we are no longer in the midst of death...mostly just up to our necks in denial.
The Victorians, of course, really knew how to ‘do‘ death.  The Dean Cemetery may not have the faintly hysterical sentimentality or gothic excesses of Highgate (this is Edinburgh after all), but it does have its own douce charms.  The grave of George Aikman - Surgeon, sports a statue of a woman leaning her elbow on something that looks like an early George Forman grill.  Her forehead rests on her hand, as if she is either feels a migraine coming on or has burnt the chops waiting for her husband who is late for dinner, yet again.   
An early autumn day, all soft and faintly melancholy, is an ideal time to visit an old cemetery, particularly one as beautiful as this.  There are conveniently located benches on which to sit in the vapourous sun and think about life and death or the price of tomatoes.  Rather than having regimented rows of graves, the Dean Cemetery is a series of grassy peninsulas and islands--an archipelago of graves, all curving lines and graceful trees of appropriately weeping varieties .  The meandering paths are laid with small, quiet gravel--presumably so as not to wake the dead.  
The Dean Cemetery was, apparently, the fashionable place to be buried in Victorian Edinburgh, as well as the most secure--the spectre of Burke and Hare clearly loomed large in the 1840s when it was established.  (The cemetery website describes the famous body-snatchers as ‘resurrectionists’--a splendid generic term for grave robbers who ensured their victims experienced the second coming a little sooner than expected).  
The very tall stone walls surrounding the cemetery support enormous memorials that look like giant headstones.  Clearly in Victorian Edinburgh you could tell a lot about a man by the size of his monument--although James Haliburton, whose headstone informs us was:  ‘A zealous investigator in Egypt of its geology and antiquities’, ironically has one of the smallest obelisks in a cemetery positively littered with the things and I am sure is very annoyed by the polished marble pyramid marking a large family plot not far away.  
The gravestones (the men’s anyway) tend to focus on occupations or achievements.  I sat opposite Christopher Johnstone - General Manager of the Caledonian Railway from 1856 to 1867.  There is no other information about him other than some very small letters at the bottom of the headstone saying he died in 1984 at the age of 67.  
Another favourite of mine is General Sir Archibald Alison, who was a Colonel in the Seaforth Highlanders, Honorary Colonel of the 1st Volunteer Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry and whose surprisingly small sarcophagus is crowded with information:  he ‘served in the Crimea 1885' at the 'capture of Kertch and Siege of Sebastopol' and was military secretary to Lord Clyde, Commander in Chief of the relief of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny--(lost left arm) it says in parenthesis.  There follows a whole list of battle honours from all sorts of exotic places, with a sentence squeezed in right at the bottom saying:  ‘Thanked twice by both Houses of Parliament’.  Well, quite.
Women’s graves tend to give a date of death and say simply 'beloved wife' or 'sister' or 'daughter'; women being given no further distinguishing characteristics (parenthetical or otherwise), unlike in the splendid ‘Merry Cemetery’ in Sapanta in northern Romania. Here the cheerful, colourful graves of men and women alike have splendid naive paintings which tell a story or in some way depict the resident individual’s life--not just what they did, but who they were and what they loved.  They are joyful, celebratory things and often funny, as are some of the epitaphs -
Under this heavy cross
Lays my poor mother in-law
Three more days she would have lived
I would lay, and she would read (this cross).
You, who here are passing by
Not to wake her up please try
Cause' if she comes back home
She'll criticise me more.
But I'll behave so well
That she'll not return from hell.
Stay here, my dead mother-in-law!
It all seems very far from sober Edinburgh where, as the poet Andrew Marvell put it, ‘the grave’s a fine and quiet place, But none I think do there embrace...’  Though I daresay there’s a coy mistress or two to be found, even in the august precincts of the Dean Cemetery.  
I  found a pleasing epitaph on a small memorial set into at the bottom of the wall on the outer side, where the path is almost overgrown and the ground falls steeply away to the river.  Kelly Susan Dikeou's grave gives her dates of birth and death and simply says:  'Born of American parents'.  
I think the same would do nicely for me...unless I decide to use my other favourite:  'I'll be right back'. 

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