Casual readers of obituaries or listeners to eulogies often instinctively focus on the odder bits. Life, after all, is elemental, quicksilver, strange; it isn’t found in a solemn list of doings and accomplishments, lists of schools attended or prizes won. People like to know about the quirks of the individual who has gone – the jam-jar collection, the clashing clothes, the unwise taste for speed. They want to laugh in the face of death and rejoice in the richness of life. At the same time death, being surrounded by grief, lays on its cold hand and demands respect. How, then, to memorialise the departed?
The more public the forum, the more treacherous the minefield. Those useful mourning-rites of the Victorians – black armbands, black ribbons tied on door-knockers, black-edged announcement cards – have more or less vanished now, together with their shared view of what death was. Yet, in our nervousness, we still fall back on the formulas we know.
In particular, we tend to keep a stiff-collar formality in the words we use. No letter is harder to write than one of condolence. Every week my local paper runs a half-page of black-rimmed death notices in which someone from a family has dutifully struggled to write a poem about love and loss. They are awkward, poignant and truly heartfelt; most use similar phrases about the grieving left behind. The loud message of these little boxes is that words must be written, but they fail.
Most obviously, they do not last. And it seems that something should. The physical presence we knew in the world has to be marked with an object that is solid and individual – most simply a stone, like the cairns of achievement on top of hills we have climbed. The powerful had such markers, from the turfed tumuli of ancient warriors, crammed with daggers and warhorses, to the chest-tombs and weeping-angel memorials of the Victorians. Yet for centuries the poor were buried unmarked around their worship-places, higgledy-piggledy and one above the other until the churchyards rose like green cushions. The dead had left the world, but remained in it: part of the community, part of the natural scene.
To be buried in an unmarked grave was also the fate of those who committed suicide and the imagined destiny of self-perceived failures, such as John Keats, whose headstone in Rome reads: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. Throughout history unmarked graves have received the victims of some tragedy or atrocity beyond the scope of ordinary rituals. In modern times markers are often erected to speak for all of them, to keep the ghosts in remembrance. Britain’s Unknown Soldier of the first world war is the spokesman for thousands under his slab of marble in Westminster Abbey. In Friston churchyard in East Sussex unknown sailors, drowned at Beachy Head, lie under a wooden cross with the legend “Washed Ashore”. In my local Sussex churchyard a battered wooden upright is left where it is because for someone, somewhere, it might conjure up a face and a name. To take it away would be an act of obliteration.
And so we continually and reverently make memorials. The littlest folk, like two-year-old Prue (“Loved by all”) with her tiny Carerra stone and blowing daffodils, are memorialised as carefully as the greatest, who are given arches through which to drive a coach and horses. Necropolises rise up, cities of the dead, as at Highgate in London, where modern left-wingers jostle to lie in the brooding shadow of Karl Marx. At Père Lachaise in Paris long avenues of tombs process under tall, sepulchral trees. And in Kolkata, at South Park Street Cemetery, the imperial casualties of foreign fevers are remembered with Indian domes, steles and lions. Churches fill up with busts and statuary, languishing nymphs, memorial brasses and the wonderful Jacobean tombs on which husband and wife face each other in ruffed and polychrome tranquillity, she with the daughters kneeling behind her and he with the sons.
Again, though, the words often disappoint. Death imposes its levelling hand. Everyone is beloved. Everyone is missed. That vast and undoubted truth squeezes out most hints of personality. Even in the more loquacious 18th century, women are routinely a credit to their sex and men competent and noble. The dead, frozen in their best expressions, lose the sharp light of hindsight and acquire the glow of eternity. How precious are the signs of what these people actually did, whether open books or sextants or carpenter’s tools; the piano that graces a grave in the City of London, Hogarth’s tomb in Chiswick with his palette and brushes. On some tombs, a life’s devotion continues: Richard Beauchamp opening his gauntleted hands to the image of the Virgin in the Collegiate Church of St Mary in Warwick, Fernand Arbelot holding, and gazing on, the stone face of his wife in Père Lachaise. Other memorials give glimpses into private dramas. A floor-stone in Dorchester Abbey records a young woman who killed herself, “who sank and died, a Martyr to Excessive Sensibility”. A grandiloquent memorial in Sherborne, raised to John, Lord Digby by his second wife, records merely that his first wife married and died, whereas the second “possess’d his Affection entire, with whom he lived in perfect friendship and Confidence & to whom he left the utmost proofs of theire reality.”
In recent years more individuality has been creeping into public remembrance. Obituaries have been loosening up to show a darker or more shambolic side. Some, often of academics, have provoked furious controversies of the sort the subject would have loved. Headstones, too, are breaking free of religion. They have been reimagined as pool tables, motorbikes, computer monitors, even a mobile phone. Steve Marsh of east London has a complete BMW; Lester Madden in Pittsburgh, a fan of “Jaws”, has the famous gaping shark. Like their medieval ancestors, some of the dead emerge and look about them. In Moscow Yuri Nikulin, one of the biggest stars of the Moscow State Circus, sits on his grave in his clown gear and smokes.
More naturalness is creeping in too. Lord Digby’s statue, ensconced in Sherborne Abbey, is safe from time’s erosion. Outside, both words and memorials are bound to slowly disappear. In the grand cemeteries, where gardeners and groundsmen keep the avenues swept, the parts visitors favour are often far away from the starker, newer memorials, in odd corners or wooded patches where weeds have been allowed to rampage.
There, ox-eye daisies flourish from portentous box tombs, and the stone is softened by gold lichen; once-grieving cherubs wink from garlands of ivy, and extravagant calligraphy is worn to flourishes and flowers. With luck those names and inscriptions have been recorded somewhere; we mourn briefly for the recognition lost. Then we find a sunny spot among the leaning stones, and sit with them. As in the unmarked times, this is simply a return to death as nature, death as a part of life.
Even that may be too formal. Headstones are expensive, and burial less common than it was. Small plaques for cremations are easily and gracefully effaced by rose bushes and grass. Park benches make a fine substitute for anything solemn in a churchyard, carrying hints of past carousing (“Chris, a jolly good fellow”) or past backache (“I always said they should put a bench here”.) The lighter the material, the closer to the flow of life. The best 1918 memorial I saw was one in which paper poppies had been fastened all over a weeping plum tree, whose old branches shimmered in the sunlight. Memorials are made by planting new trees too, their dedication often unknown beyond the family. It doesn’t matter. Here is something green, living and growing; not a slab of stone or marble, inert and dead. “Raise no commemorating stone,” wrote the poet Rilke, thinking of Orpheus. “It’s Orpheus where there’s singing.”
Past the “backache” bench on Hampstead Heath I once saw a straggling party of people walking with paper cups, preparing to scatter the ashes of a friend. They looked at me with embarrassed smiles. But this was what she wanted: nothing churchy, nothing fixed, just the wide view of London, the rioting brambles, friends remembering, the taking air. That was as good a memorial as any.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Edward Beauchamp’s tomb in Warwick Cathedral. The tomb belongs to Richard Beauchamp and is in the Collegiate Church of St Mary in Warwick.