Peter Ross is a Glasgow-based journalist who lives in a property overlooking one of the city’s famous graveyards. Ross’s window view combined with his exploration and fact gathering makes for a fascinating read. I often rotate novels with reading travel literature/non-fiction and after enjoying Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis and Stephen Smith’s Underground London, had a feeling I’d enjoy this book.
There are some familiar visits – such as Highgate in London and Greyfriars in Edinburgh – but Ross finds new territory to explore. He is sensitive to ‘death tourism’ and the difficulty of respecting a grieving family’s wishes for privacy alongside managing the demand of fans and admirers to visit and leave tokens of appreciation. This has been a particular issue at George Michael’s grave and, we learn, pens are thrust into the earth at George Eliot’s resting place by lovers of Middlemarch. Of particular interest in the section on Highgate (and elsewhere too) is the need to ensure cemeteries are maintained and don’t fall into disrepair. For cemeteries to continue to function they need bodies to bury. They need the dead to stay alive as it were. There is no revenue without funerals and without revenue there is no maintenance or improvement and this may lead to them falling into ruin and being redeveloped. The problem is that we are running out of available space for burials. Highgate is estimated to have around seven years left at most and plans are being examined to look at using vacant plots or adding to existing graves.
Of course many choose cremation, but there is interest in green burials (wicker casket, all biodegradable) and Muslim funerals require burial within 24 hours. This demand for land has led to the cost soaring and some Muslim families have found it cheaper to transport their loved ones for ceremonies in Pakistan or Bangladesh, for example. Most naturally prefer to be buried here where they have chosen to make their home, but it is a costly business.
There are interesting visits to Brompton cemetery in west London, the resting place for many gay people and a tour brilliantly called Queerly Departed. There are further departures to Scottish islands, Belfast, Dublin, Fife, and a bone crypt in Northamptonshire with 1,000 skulls and the estimated remains of 2,500 people through the centuries, and characters including the Stepney Amazon and Peter the Wild Boy.
But what made the greatest impression on me was the chapter dealing with the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The CWGC looks after 170,000 graves in the UK, many of which are in towns or locations such as Cannock Chase, close to where we live, but some are hopelessly remote and require deliveries of memorial stones by helicopter and hiking across bogs and rocky coasts. The fallen are still being found on the battlefields of the Great War, with an estimated 100,000 soldiers still missing. A body was recently found under a floor by a Belgian family and Ross notes that by the October of 2019, 51 bodies had already been discovered that year. The commitment of the CWGC staff and the painstaking work checking records and notes and property found on or with the bodies to establish identity is incredible. Ross is with them when they find four bodies and part of a badge leads to the beginning of an identification of the men. It’s very moving to read and handled with skill. As an interviewer Ross isn’t frightened to challenge and offer alternative views. There are murals and plaques for those who died for the Republican cause in Northern Ireland, but don’t the soldiers who fell deserve remembrance here too, he asks?
Not sure what it says about me that I was drawn to this book when choosing birthday presents, but it comes highly recommended. It’s entertaining and sensitive and deals with a number of challenging issues around death we’re going to be hearing more about.