PC 157 Does it Matter if No One Knows?

Somehow I associate life with sunshine and death with winter gloom, so it’s odd to post something about the end of life in a gloriously warm summer’s week. But that’s how it goes sometimes; just scribbles!

There’s an old Latin saying from the days of Socrates, ‘Memento Mori’, which I came across the other day in a novel by Victoria Hislop about the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). I don’t know much about the latter, apart from the fact it ripped Spain apart, and hadn’t heard the former before. It means ‘Remember you must die’ and before you think it’s the sort of thing Bruce Willis or Clint Eastwood might have said, the point of this reminder is not to be morbid or promote fear, but to inspire, motivate and clarify ……. and I like that …….. get on and live life to the full.

A couple of months we were driving through deepest Surrey and I suddenly realised we were in Shottermill, passing St Stephen’s Church. A decade ago this would have meant nothing to me, this little church on a triangle of land surrounded by busy roads; but then, in the process of researching family history, I found that somewhere in their cemetery were the graves of my great grandparents and their second son who had died aged 48 in the 1936 TB epidemic.

I had been. Eventually I found my great grandparents in one grave and looked around for the other, for their son Cecil. Then I realised that Cecil had joined his parents in the same grave. I could just about make out the names on the stone slab and side bars.

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Shottermill 2007

Various methods have been used down the ages to mark the ‘end-of-life’. The Anglo-Saxons built earth and stone burial barrows; you can still see them particularly across the county of Wiltshire. We’ve all seen footage of the cremation of Hindus in Varanasi, India’s oldest city, where they come to die, believing that cremation on its funeral pyres on the ghat will release them from the cycle of reincarnation and allow them to progress to nirvana. The way the Vikings laid their dead to rest on their ship and set it alight feels romantic and spiritual; although if you feel this is for you, in the UK it’s not currently legal and you have to be cremated first, then sent off to sea!!

Christian graveyards in the UK, Protestant ones in particular, are very sombre, boring affairs. Rows of small head stones, atop a space a coffin’s width and length, cover a few acres. If you’re lucky the grass in between is mowed; but there are few benches as though neither contemplation and nor remembrance is encouraged. Those of you who read PC 60 following the death of my father-in-law Carlos Rocha Miranda, a Catholic, in January 2016 may recall: “The crematorium is surrounded by the graves of the departed. Some huge edifices have been erected ….  the artist obviously having been given free reign  …… winged angels stand guard  …..  women lie draped in distress across the cold stone  bust  …. Mausoleums, large and frankly ridiculous, dot the landscape. Is this glorifying death …… or life? Not sure! Maybe just highlights our awkwardness about what to do and how to do it??”

Religions differ in how they see the passage from life into death, into heaven or into the after-life vary. Muslims commonly believe that the present life is a trial in preparation for the eternal life. If they’ve done good, they go to Paradise. The body is buried as soon as possible and placed in a grave oriented towards Mecca. Muslims cannot be cremated and neither can Jews. The Jewish funeral consists of a burial as soon as possible after death. No flowers are allowed in a Jewish Cemetery but there is a lovely tradition of visitors placing a stone or pebble on the grave. Burial was normal for Christians in the UK, whether Protestant or Catholic, although now cremation is quite common. No one seems to be in a hurry and it can be a fortnight or more before the funeral takes place!

Back to Shottermill. We pulled into the car park and went and stood; the ravages of 10 years have made it almost impossible to read anything. Talk about death and decay! Stone is not immune! So I wrote to the Protestant Church of England church to ask whether I could place a brass plaque of some sort, to some agreed design, to make it easier for future generations to locate their ancestors, otherwise no one will know. Their initial response suggests I could replace the stonework or have the letters recut! Both these options are very expensive and I may have to argue for something more affordable. George’s father was buried in another St Stephen’s cemetery, (there’s a coincidence!) this one in the Auckland suburb of Parnell in New Zealand, where he’d been the mayor. At the time, 1891, a family financial crisis meant they could not afford any form of headstone or grave marker, and it was only by looking at the cemetery plan was I able to determine where he was buried. In 2011 some 40 of his descendants gathered to dedicate an appropriate plaque; otherwise no one will know. (This is what I have in mind for his son George’s grave here in the UK.)

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His father, another Stephen but no Saint, is buried in the Christian Cemetery in Cawnpore, India, where he succumbed to Cholera in 1828 aged 49. Sadly the ravages of time, of heat, of climate have mean the large tombstone, with a huge inscription from his fellow officers, has crumbled and disintegrated. I saw where the spot should have been, well, within 10 feet, such was the unkempt nature of the cemetery.

Stephen Nation's here somewhere

Searching for Stephen Nation in Cawnpore, India

My own father was cremated and his ashes scattered on the River Clyde on the west coast of Scotland, so no physical place to go to, should I have ever wanted to. My stepfather and mother were cremated and their ashes were scattered together in Worth Crematorium north of Brighton. I am sure there’s a little plaque on a wall somewhere but I’ve never been. But I was excited by finding George and Eva; the idea that their skeletons rest beneath the gravestone attracts me more than a place where ashes were scattered. But to recognise the place you need to be able to read the carved words!

And if you can’t read the words, you won’t know. If no one knows, does it matter?

Richard Estoril, Portugal 26th July 2019

PS Katrina Spade, an appropriate surname for the CEO of Recompose (!), has just been granted a licence in Seattle, Washington State, to turn human cadavers into compost. Great idea but would you want to know if the food you’re eating had been grown using this compost, I wonder?


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