Posted by Charles
Philip Gould, one of the architects and strategists of New Labour, died of cancer at the end of last year. Before he died he bought himself a grave at Highgate cemetery. The photo above shows him standing beside it.
Below is an extract from his final book, which he finished dictating hours before his death.
When I was recovering from my surgery in Newcastle I began to think once again about arranging my own burial plot. So I called Highgate Cemetery and asked if they had any plots. They did, I was told, and I was given the name of a man to speak to about it. And then, what with one thing and another, I forgot about the idea.
When I was diagnosed as being terminally ill, and told that my death was coming sooner rather than later, I remembered again. I called the number I had been given. The person I had been told to contact had left the cemetery but the man on the end of the phone said he would look after me anyway.
“I’ll do it,” he said. “My name is Victor. I’m the grave-digger.”
Of course I expected Victor to be a six-foot-six giant with a big shovel over one shoulder. And when I met him he turned out to be a six-foot-six giant with a shovel over one shoulder.
Victor Herman deals all the time with people who are dying, and quite often with people like me who are about to die. He is the sexton, and although he has worked at Highgate for twenty-two years, he actually dug his first grave there ten years before that, when he was fourteen. His father had been the head gravedigger there for years and so he and his family were part of the history of the whole place.
Victor and I and Gail wandered around the cemetery a couple of times. He would suggest a spot here or there, but they were not the kind of places I wanted. I wanted a bigger plot, somewhere that could become almost a communal place for our family and friends. I was looking not so much for a burial plot as a burial place, I suppose, a meeting place, something physical that you could see and connect to.
Victor may be big but he is gentle with it: he was wonderful with Gail. He gave her great comfort because he has had so much experience of dealing with death. He dealt with us beautifully. It was a wonderful morning and at last we chose a spot. Finding a physical place for me was a huge step forward. On the one hand it was a place to which people who are still alive can come and connect to me. For my daughters in particular that would be a good thing. And on the other hand it enabled me to see the place where I was going to spend eternity. Here was the place where my family and friends could come to find me.
And perhaps not only people who knew me. There will be people about the place looking at the graves, looking at my grave, so it will be almost a communal meeting point between the dead and the living. It sounds very romantic, I know. But the dead and the living are both part of our lives. It gives me great comfort to know that I will be there.
This morning I stood at my grave and I thought: God, I do feel very, very happy to be going to this place. That is a small victory for a different view of death.
As this process goes on, as death gets closer, my experiences become more and more tense, but also more and more joyful. They are surprising, too. Things happen that I would not have expected to happen. Coincidences occur. I find I have entered a world which is not as I thought it would be. It is much better than I thought it would be. The ground rules, the nature of reality, in this world are different.
I knew it would be special this morning when we went to my grave, and it was. I was photographed at my place of interment. I am now alive but later I will be dead. It was very powerful and led to a whole series of connections that were quite surprising and unexpected.
This morning, I did not feel that I was in a dead place. I did not think this morning that I was in a place from which energy had gone, at which the process of decline was starting. I did not feel that this was somehow the beginning of decay.
Instead I saw that this too was life. It was the taking of us from what we are to being something different. And that, I think, is the process of death. Death gives meaning to life and the knowledge that you are going to die one day gives you the sense that there is meaning in your life. When you are going to die soon, you really do feel the absolute intensity of life. Life becomes completely precious, not just because there is so little of it left but because the actual nature of experience is more fulfilling, more protean than it was before. I feel there are somehow more molecules moving around the room now. Death is going to happen to everybody, but it is happening to me now.
Ten days after the photo at the top was taken, Philip Gould was dead.