Posted by Richard Rawlinson
I’m extending the Easter holiday with a visit to a village in Bordeaux, where my friends’ house overlooks the graveyard of a Medieval church. With death oft going unseen and unspoken in our secular times, a graveyard is a reminder of our mortality, prompting us to contemplate the inevitable final day, contextualising it and ritualising it. For centuries, corpses wrapped in shrouds have been delivered to this graveyard on biers carried by family and friends, consigning their dead to the eternal care and protection of the Church.
It’s got me thinking about options for resting places. Big cemeteries such as Pere Lachaise in Paris or London’s Highgate are akin to museums in which to visit the famous dead. Village graveyards can offer scenic beauty and tranquility. Metaphorically speaking, would you prefer to be in stimulating urban company or resting in rural peace?
Reason tells us it shouldn’t matter either way: when we’re six feet under we’ve either ceased to exist or our souls live on outside the body. But, whether religious or not, it often does matter to us where we rest, and not just for the convenience of visitors to our grave.
I like the idea of being in a churchyard because it’s within a community of the living, not a remote place just for the dead. And yet I don’t have a strong preference for being buried alongside family and friends. Love ‘em dearly but I don’t envisage souls as being grounded to any specific place.
Martin Amis said: ‘The first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone.’ I’m no recluse, like socialising and certainly don’t compare myself to Amis (I’m a humble hack, not a novelist) but I also feel alive when reflecting in solitude, albeit on all the interactions experienced when in company. I hope death is something like that: an aloneness that isn’t lonely as we’re all as one; a time of being, not doing, unmarred by the inconsistency and unpredictability of active life; a peaceful state of love that needs no external stimuli.
All things considered, I’d like my funeral to be in my urban cathedral but my grave to be in a village graveyard. English soil, naturally.
Footnote: a study by social psychologists at Florida State University attempted to quantify how visiting a cemetery, or living next door to one, affects behaviour. Actors engaged with those they found walking in graveyards, or in the streets around them, and sought their help with a practical dilemma. They then repeated the exercise away from the burial ground. They reported that the first group was 40 per cent more likely to offer assistance than the second.
I haven’t asked for assistance here in Bordeaux (limited French + surly locals = flawed study). Repatriate me.