Where the dead men lie

It's not Gothic at all (well, only slightly) but one of my favourite things to do at home and while travelling is visit graveyards.  You can learn a bit of human history by looking at the names and dates of people buried there.  Cemeteries are also an excellent way to cool down while on a fast-paced city break, just to take an hour or so wandering at a leisurely pace amongst the stones and appreciate the tranquility.

In the UK, moss-covered and neglected gravestones can be a glimpse into the past.  I found these stones in the lichyard of St. Dunstan's Church in Cranford, a small medieval building that is even mentioned in the Domesday Book.  On the left is a stone commemorating a woman named Susanna Short who died in 1671 aged twenty - which means she would have survived the Great Plague of 1665 only to pass away just five years later.  On the right is a traditional Celtic cross which can be seen throughout Northern Europe as a symbol of those who fell in the World Wars.  This family was fortunate enough to bury their son locally, unlike countless others.

I've visited several WWI and II graveyards over the years, with school and as an inevitable excursion when my dad was living in Northern France.  There's something heart-rending about seeing so many uniform stones stretching off into the distance.  In fact, I find the impersonal nature of a site like this can be all the more evocative as my imagination starts to imagine the horrific conditions these men were living, fighting and dying in.  If ever you find yourself in Normandy or Belgium, a battlefield trip is a must.  The trenches are long gone, though some replicas have been built for tourists, but the bomb craters remain.

My favourite kind of English graveyard are the ones that retain something a little pagan about them.  Many pre-Christian beliefs were absorbed into that religion as it spread across Britain, and especially in older churches this can be seen.  Trees were sacred in pagan religion, and this continued as a tradition separated from the original gods.  In the grounds of All Saints Church, Isleworth, a yew tree is planted over the mass grave of 149 victims of the Great Plague.  English churchyards often resemble small copses, and larger cemeteries (like Highgate) were modelled to be parks.  A particularly quaint feature is the lichgate, which you see in older churchyards.  They are a marker between consecrated and unconsecrated ground, where a coffin would be rested before being blessed and then buried.

The small cemetery that serves my dad's village, Octon, has many individual graves and some family mausoleums that look as though they might have many generations buried within.  It's a beautiful spot: tree-lined, well-maintained with an organised layout that couldn't differ more from the average haphazard English graveyard.  It's not dissimilar to the sprawling, celebrity-filled cemeteries of Paris to the eye, although I found the scale of those challenging.  The Cimetière du Montparnasse is so large it has roads within it, and is far less leafy than the sun-dappled plot in Octon.  It's worth a visit though, and found some of the notes left at the grave of Simone de Beauvoir particularly moving.

Another famous one, the Lafayette Cemetery in New Orleans.  'The Big Easy', as I've never heard anyone in real life call it, is one of my favourite cities: full of life, yet full of death, where the past dances alongside the present.  This cemetery in the Garden District was like stepping into France, but for the cloying humidity.  A tradition in New Orleans for a funeral is to sing and dance through the streets, celebrating the life of the deceased as much as the continuing lives of the mourners, the polar opposite to Britain's dour processions!  It's fascinating to see how death is marked across different cultures, it's a bit like stepping into the past.

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