Starcat 1 by my favourite artist

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Walking The Dead

Liverpool St. James' Cemetary
with the Anglican Cathedral in 
the background and the 
Huskisson monument to the
Glasgow Necropolis
In 19th-century England overpopulation of traditional church graveyards meant that several were, in some cases, literally full to bursting. This led to the creation of municipal and private graveyards, such as St. James' Cemetary in Liverpool.,
Bristol's Arnos Vale and Glasgow Necropolis, this latter also being Europe's largest Masonic cemetary. An aside:Wavertree's Holy Trinity Cemetary, Liverpool, is a mere stone's throw away from Penny Lane and contains the graves of one Eleanor Rigby and a certain Father Mackenzie. All photos of the Bristish graveyards are courtesy of the websites mentioned.

The romance of Arnos Vale, Bristol.
As now, the graves could be rented or bought freehold and soon these cemetaries were also filling up. we could say that, ahem, they became dead popular - or that people were dying to get a plot there! When full, these places were abandonded to nature. The photo of the (now) lightly-managed Arnos Vale gives us some idea of the fate that overtook these necropolises. One solution to overcrowding was the rise of cremation, made possible by the industrial production of town gas as a fuel. Now, in the 21st century many people enjoy a stroll around these Victorian monuments to the dead, enjoying the romantic decay and Gothic art to be found at every turn. Indeed, such places could be said to be a metaphor for life itself: they were born, flourished, died and decayed. More worryingly, if we maintain the conceit, they are now slowly rising from their own ashes.

The flowers might be artifical, 
but the sentiments certainly 
Unfortunately for me, I no longer live in Britain and so such strolls have become a rare luxury. Yesterday, however, I decided to take a walk around the old cemetary in Sanlúcar de Barrameda. Municipal graveyards in Spain are somewhat different to their British counterparts in several respects. Here, most churches never had a churchyard so while the rich and powerful were buried within the church, hoi polloi have always been buried in the outskirts in what to British eyes might appear to be filing cabinets for the dead.

Another angle of the same avenue, with the
chapel at the end.
In other words the dead were buried aboveground in rented or freehold niches. Renters could, and still can, expect a 50-year sojourn in their niche before being removed to an ossuary, slowly to moulder for all eternity. As I walked around Sanlúcar's cemetary I was first surprised by the fact that there is a complete absence of the smell of rotting flesh. 

Examining these houses of the dead, I saw empty niches awaiting new occupants, old, negelected niches and others with a glass front so that not only could you see the gravestone but also grave goods - photos, holy statues etc. Little messages on scraps of paper fluttering on the end of a piece of sellotape. It all sounds incredibly mawkish, vulgar even, but in fact I found it strangely moving that people - now nothing more than scraps of flesh and motes of dust - are still so present in the thoughts of the living.


  1. An interesting comparison between burial practices in Britain and Spain, respectively. Many inner city graveyards in Britain have been cleared - leaving just a few of the more interesting tombs in place as "features" - and turned into parks or gardens, thereby adding to the precious inventory of urban green spaces.

    1. Indeed. I do however find that left as they are, out oft-abandoned Victorian graveyards are a potent memento mori, bringing to mind Shelley's haunting poem "I Ozymandias" which so powerfully depicts mankind's hybris and frailty.