Let's go where we're happy and I'll meet you at the cemetery gates
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Sombre, scary and creepy are the feelings usually associated with visiting graveyards but for me walking around a cemetery is a truly uplifting experience. Eerie sometimes, yes, but there is always an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness, contemplation and curiosity.
From as far back I can remember, I have enjoyed wandering through graveyards… now I guess I’m starting to sound weird… but please, bear with me.
As a young girl every Sunday I used to attend then later teach at the Sunday School at my local church, St Mary’s in Baldock, Hertfordshire. As I was a curious child, I loved exploring both inside and outside the church, which dated back to the 14th Century and therefore had plenty to occupy my inquisitive mind. I was intrigued about the names written on the gravestones from the centuries that had gone before me. One inscription which always used to stop me in my tracks was this: “In memory of Henry George, son of Henry and Harriet Brown who departed this life Mar 20th 1861 Aged 10 years & 10 months – How soon I was cut down when innocent at play, The wind blew a scaffold down and took my life away.” I remember looking at this before I was ten, then when I was ten and ten months and now, even 30 years on, every time I go back home to visit my mum who still lives in Baldock, I always pass by this and take a few minutes to value my own life.
Later as a young teenager, admittedly with Gothic tendencies, I used to wallow in walking home via the graveyard. Then came my obsession with the alternative group, The Smiths – and when they released their song ‘Cemetery Gates’, where Morrissey and Marr invited their fans to meet them at the cemetery gates: “A dreaded sunny day, so let’s go where we’re happy and I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates“, I knew my love for both the Smiths and for visiting cemeteries was now set in stone.
After my dad unexpectedly died when I was sixteen death became a very big part of my life, whether I wanted it to be there or not. At significant times of the year I would go for poignant walks with my mum and our dog, Baron, to visit dad’s grave, where my mum would place daffodils or his other favourite flowers.
At University me and my best friend and fellow Smiths fan, the biographer Carol Ann Lee, would visit popular Smiths sights in Manchester and on a sunny day, would often find ourselves at Southern Cemetery, which was the inspiration for Morrissey’s lyrics to the song Cemetery Gates.
When I moved to Poland in the late 1990s one of my regular walks into Katowice town centre was via Cmentarz on ul. Sienkiewicza, where my mood was always lifted by the huge number of flowers and candles which adorned the graves all year round even in the deep snowdrifts of a Polish winter. But nothing prepared me for the evening of the Polish national holiday Dzień Wszystkich Świętych (All Saints’ Day) when my normally peaceful evening walk in the cemetery was met with scores of laden with lanterns and flowers. Each grave had been adorned with large bouquets of flowers and 10 or 20 lanterns all ablaze, and with thousands of graves in the cemetery at dusk it was a truly divine experience. The next day All Souls’ Day (Dzień Zaduszny or Dzień Wszystkich Zmarłych) was the an even more amazing.
One of the grandest cemeteries to visit in the world is La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Argentina, famous for being the resting place of Eva Peron. When I visited Argentina about 15 years ago, on my very first day in Buenos Aires I made a beeline to this legendary necropolis. From everywhere you stand in the opulent cemetery white stone spiritual beings gaze down at you really feel as though you are among angels. Needless to say I had a wonderful time wondering around with my sketchbook and camera.
Here are some of my favourite photographs from this ethereal experience.
Contrary to the lavishness of Recoleta cemetery is the graveyard of the ruined St Thomas a Becket church in Heptsonstall, a tiny village high up on the moors above Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, England. The graveyard, full of dark stone graves, is shared by two churches, the ruined church, named after the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered on the order of the King in 1170 not long before building started on this church, and an adjacent church, St Thomas the Apostle, which is in current use. When you are standing high up on the moors above Calderdale Valley in among the ruined shell of the church on a windy day it is easy to imagine how the building was destroyed by a heavy gale in 1847. Heptonstall also boasts the oldest Methodist Church in continuous use.
But this unique setting is not my only reason for visiting this curiously Gothic place, for here you will find the grave of poet and writer, and heroine of mine, Sylvia Plath, whose husband former Poet Laureate Ted Hughes came from nearby village Mytholmroyd. Sylvia Plath committed suicide in 1963, she was just 30 years old. The inscription on her headstone reads “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted 1932 – 1963”
My husband and I lived in Mytholmroyd for five years, just up the road from where Ted Hughes grew up, and during that time we would often take a walk up to the moors to visit this beautiful place. These photos are from one of those snowy wintery walks.
Lady Lazarus by Sylvia Plath
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——
A sort of walking miracle, my skin
Bright as a Nazi lampshade,
My right foot
My face a featureless, fine
Peel off the napkin
O my enemy.
Do I terrify?——
The nose, the eye pits, the full set of teeth?
The sour breath
Will vanish in a day.
Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me
And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.
This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade.
What a million filaments.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot——
The big strip tease.
These are my hands
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
The first time it happened I was ten.
It was an accident.
The second time I meant
To last it out and not come back at all.
I rocked shut
As a seashell.
They had to call and call
And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.
Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well.
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.
It’s easy enough to do it in a cell.
It’s easy enough to do it and stay put.
It’s the theatrical
Comeback in broad day
To the same place, the same face, the same brute
That knocks me out.
There is a charge
For the eyeing of my scars, there is a charge
For the hearing of my heart——
It really goes.
And there is a charge, a very large charge
For a word or a touch
Or a bit of blood
Or a piece of my hair or my clothes.
So, so, Herr Doktor.
So, Herr Enemy.
I am your opus,
I am your valuable,
The pure gold baby
That melts to a shriek.
I turn and burn.
Do not think I underestimate your great concern.
You poke and stir.
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there——
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
Other interesting cemeteries to around the world
Highgate Cemetery (London, England) – This is one of the most magical places to visit in London, where you’ll find some of the finest funerary architecture in the world. Hidden between masses of trees, shrubs and under creeping ivy you will find the graves of Karl Marx, Michael Faraday, George Eliot, Henry Moore, Douglas Adams, Christina Rossetti and one of my favourites, Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal who the famous Pre–Raphaelite muse who posed for a number of famous paintings including the haunting Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais.
Cimetière du Père Lachaise, (Paris, France) This vast cemetery with its cobblestones and tree-shaded paths and is a romantics paradise, walking around it you can play a spot the bohemian celebrity, for this is the final resting place of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Édith Piaf, Molière, Frederic Chopin, Modigiliani, Marcel Proust, Honore De Balzac, Théodore Géricault, and the medieval star-crossed lovers Abelard and Heloise, whose bones long after their death were buried together in a grand tomb, where where lovers leave letters. The tomb of Oscar Wilde, designed by sculptor Jacob Epstein, now has a increasing problem with people leaving other romantic gestures and a very strange form of graffiti, a lipstick kiss, which are now becoming a serious problem, because the grease sinks into the stone and when the stone is clean it is starting to wear away.
Old Jewish Cemetery, Prague, Czech Republic
A higgledy-piggledy mass of graves dating back to the 15th century, the old Jewish Cemetery lies in the Jewish Quarter of Prague. However, the numbers of gravestones and the number of people buried here cannot be measured, as the layers upon layers of tombs makes it nearly impossible to know. Some say there are 12,000 tombstones that are visible however, but there could very well be 100,000 burials in all.
Arlington National Cemetery Virginia, USA
This is the most famous cemetery in the United States, and is the final resting place for more than 300,000 veterans of every American conflict, from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan. Since its founding in 1866, Arlington National Cemetery has provided a solemn place to reflect upon the sacrifices made by the men and women of the United States Armed Forces in the name of their country.
Merry Cemetery (Săpânța, Romania)
In a small town in the Maramures region of Romania lies a small cemetery quite unlike any other in the world. In the 1930’s woodcarver Stan Ioan Patras carved a picture for each person that died and mounted it to the grave. The carved crosses are brightly painted predominantly in blue, show either how the person died or the person doing their favourite thing in life, along with a short poem written about the person.
Xoxocotlan Cemetery, Oaxaca, Mexico
As part of the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations families hold night-long vigils at the Xoxocotlan cemetery outside of Oaxaca in celebration of their dead relatives. Bands play music, people eat the favourite food of the deceased, drawings are made using sand and graves are swamped with flowers and photos of the dead.
Okunoin cemetery, Mount Koya, Japan
Okunoin cemetery is in Koya-san, an ancient village located in Japan’s mountainous Wakayama Prefecture. It is Japan’s largest cemetery, with over 200,000 tombs spread across 2 kilometres and it looks like has come straight out of a Studio Ghibli movie.
So next time you feel a shiver and say, “someone is walking over my grave’, it not be such a bad thing after all.
The Smiths – Cemetery Gates
A dreaded sunny day So I meet you at the cemetry gates Keats and Yeats are on your side A dreaded sunny day So I meet you at the cemetry gates Keats and Yeats are on your side While Wilde is on mine So we go inside and we gravely read the stones All those people, all those lives Where are they now? With loves, and hates And passions just like mine They were born And then they lived And then they died It seems so unfair I want to cry You say : “‘Ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn” And you claim these words as your own But I’ve read well, and I’ve heard them said A hundred times (maybe less, maybe more) If you must write prose/poems The words you use should be your own Don’t plagiarise or take “on loan” ‘Cause there’s always someone, somewhere With a big nose, who knows And who trips you up and laughs When you fall Who’ll trip you up and laugh When you fall You say : “‘Ere long done do does did” Words which could only be your own And then produce the text From whence was ripped (Some dizzy whore, 1804) A dreaded sunny day So let’s go where we’re happy And I meet you at the cemetry gates Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side A dreaded sunny day So let’s go where we’re wanted And I meet you at the cemetry gates Keats and Yeats are on your side But you lose ‘Cause weird lover Wilde is on mine