I’m not going to labour the point of this weekend being twenty years since my Dad died by writing about it incessantly. I don’t need to. Yes, I felt quite sad for a moment this week, but I wasn’t mired in pain and I don’t have any blockages of grief or regrets to get off my chest.
But I did go to my Dad’s grave on the actual anniversary of his death and it made me think about one or two things, which I would like to record here.
The last time my wife and I visited (about six weeks ago) the headstone was filthy and the surrounds were unkempt. Long dead flowers in the vase. Leaves and other bits and pieces within the kerbs. Bird shit and moss and dust and dirt all over the stone. The words on the front were, though not illegible, dimmed and quite difficult to see clearly.
It was obvious to me that no-one else had been to the grave in quite a while. It left me feeling like my Dad was sliding off into ancient history, in quiet danger of disappearing, his memory decaying to the point of zero relevance – “What was his name again?” – and I did not like it.
Here’s the funny thing. I realised that it had bothered me in increments to see things spoil to this condition. But it had never once occurred to me, in twenty years of coming to the grave, that I personally could do anything about it.
Not once. But after the visit six weeks ago I felt a sudden compulsion. And, curiously, a permission.
The anniversary seemed the most appropriate time to pack up a carrier bag with domestic cleaning spray, a scrubber and sponge and some kitchen roll. I used water from the cemetery tap, in the cemetery watering can.
It didn’t take too long to clean up and then rinse the headstone. Ten minutes at most. And though it wasn’t particularly hard graft and I didn’t do what you could call a professional job, it did look a hell of a lot better. I left feeling like my Dad was a bit more respected and valued, and a little more present.
Graveyards interest me. I think they can be truly beautiful locations. Sometimes they are even scenes.
One of my favourite memories is of visiting Oscar Wilde’s tomb at Père Lachaise in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, eleven years ago. I put on some of my mother’s lipstick and kissed it, as enchanted tourists do. On the back side, of course.
Despite my attachment to my father’s grave, I have never quite been able to get my head round graves themselves as a site for mourning.
A grave is not the place a person ceased to be.
It is a hole someone dug and lowered some bones in a box into. It may be the final resting place for the remains of a body, but a body is not a person no matter how hard some might try while they are living.
The body is merely a car, and when you have travelled do you look back and think of the vehicle rather than the journey? The essence, the character, the life, the spark, the soul – the passenger – has departed the thing that is put into the grave.
Well, you’d hope that it has…
I remember, on the first anniversary of my Dad’s death, a more experienced and very wise friend of mine offered to accompany me, as I had not been on my own before and not at all since the day of the funeral. She said “It’s hard to know what to do at a grave if you’ve not been before”.
She was right, it was strange. But she could produce no step-by-step guide and there was no masterplan to let me in on. I still often feel a bit awkward. I experience a mixture of random memories and some wondering why I’m standing there in particular.
It seems almost arbitrary, not especially connected to my Dad or his death at all. Other than that it is in the village he got away from as soon as he could when he was young and then rarely visited afterwards. The patch of ground itself is just the place we went to after we’d been in a church one sad day.
A grave is a societal neatness.
Surely a more profoundly relevant location for those who are left to mourn and coalesce the left-over fragments of their grief would be the actual site of a person’s death, if it is possible to go there? Whenever I see flowers on the verge at the site of a road accident, I understand it. The X on the tarmac in Dealey Plaza, I understand it. The memorial garden on Sherwood Crescent in Lockerbie, where once there was a crater where once there were houses, I understand it.
Of course, it isn’t always possible to go there, to ‘the place’. I do also understand that. A grave, as I said a moment ago, is a neatness. A polite agreement between taste and convenience.
So I suppose, in the end, it will have to do…
One of my favourite songs is the serene and clever Cemetry Gates by The Smiths, from the 1986 album The Queen Is Dead.
The actual title of the song is a misspelling. I’m not sure whether it was deliberate, but at that point in time Morrissey was sniper-precise with his words and so I suspect it was. I have this inkling that it was something to do with a letter having dropped off a sign at a specific site. So, anyway, in my relating of the name of the song I’m being accurate (in case you thought standards were slipping)…
Cemetry Gates features lyrics of poetic note, written when Morrissey was still able to verse his black and white vision of northern life with terrific flow. He would meet up with a friend in their local cemetery and they would walk and read the stones, solemnly but considering with joy “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”…
My wife and I have sometimes done the same thing and we think it to be the opposite of morbid. Not to be pretentious about it, but it feels like these carved names can somehow live again even if only for a brief moment or two.
When I was living down in France I strolled over to the town cimetière one Sunday morning. I made a short film of my visit as it was a truly picturesque place. That film used the song by The Smiths as its soundtrack.
The design of French graves is often quite different to those you see in England, which did make me think about how different countries and different cultures ‘do death’. And (to an English logophile) the array of unusual foreign names and other exotic words really appealed.
At one grave I was able to plunge my mind into whole scenarios involving a vindictive mistress. Or a much put-upon wife. Or abandoned children. Or long-suffering colleagues and acquaintances. A truculent and bitter old crust of a figure who had died with no friends, the other citizens of his town marking his grave to have their final word.
It was for a man called Bastard, and it amused me to death.