Everything is only for a day

Charles Cowling


Immortality and eternity have meaning as concepts but they don’t translate into reality, not here on transient Earth. If you don’t believe that, go and visit a mature cemetery – or ask Ozymandias, poor, baffled chap. Time teaches us this lesson every fleeting minute, but we set our faces against it—heroically or idiotically, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference. In the words of Marcus Aurelius:

Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.

Yesterday, I went to look around Brookwood cemetery in the elite company of two pioneers: Ken West, who sparked the natural burial movement here and, subsequently, worldwide; and Cynthia Beal, a natural burialist from the US. Ken is gentle and principled. He’s all for stripped-down simplicity. Cynthia is questing, questioning. She’s an environmentalist who makes things happen. Both are highly intelligent, so there were times when I fell off the back of their conversation bigtime. But if you look at a cemetery through the eyes of people with their combined knowledge of ecology, soil science, the law, lobbying and actually running cemeteries, you pick up a lot, even me. It was a privilege, let me tell you.

It’s a dreadful place of untended graves and collapsing monuments. It is the antithesis of all that it aspires to be, utterly incoherent. Especially consonant was the spectacle of an obelisk perhaps twenty-five feet high which, weary of pointing to Eternity, had just flung itself down.

Ken and Cynthia debated memorialisation. People want, need, to mark the spot. They must have somewhere to go and something to do. Problem is, most people stop doing that after around ten years, that’s when the rack and ruin set in. Cynthia is all for enabling people to mark the spot in ways which are not ecologically hostile. Ken is for anonymity and subsumation (a new word. I like it.)

It’s a complex matter, this business of memorialisation. Very complex. People tend graves to show they care. “Vanity!” said Ken. “Can they not show they care by allowing nature to receive them back, by permitting them to create habitats?”

My feelings exactly. But we don’t feel for all.

For all that, Brookwood is an object lesson in the vanity of human wishes. Its 500 acres are an ecological and memorial near-waste of space. Dire to think that it’s got around 250 years to go before it’ll be full.

On the journey back I overtook a catering caravan travelling to Glorious Goodwood. I passed signs to Royal Ascot. I reflected that I had spent the day at Buggered Brookwood.

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