How to Read a Graveyard”
c.2014, Bloomsbury $15.95 / higher in Canada
Angels watch over your grandmother.
Many of them, in fact, and there’s also a lamb nearby, a boy with a stone baseball, and a couple of sharp-topped towers. It’s always so quiet where she is; few visit that section of the cemetery anymore these days.
And that’s too bad, says author Peter Stanford. In his book, “How to Read a Graveyard,” he proves that cemeteries are interesting places.
When his kids didn’t exercise the dog they begged to have, it was up to Peter Stanford to do it. That was when he began a daily pilgrimage to the closest walk-space available: the lanes of a British cemetery.
“Once we were so good at grief,” Stanford muses. We used to invite it in our homes. It was part of our culture, complete with parameters and rules but today, most people try to completely forget about it: research “suggests that after 15 years most graves are no longer visited.”
Purposeful burial, of course, happened long before humans kept records of this sort of thing, but cemeteries themselves differed throughout history. Before the time of the Roman Empire, the Etruscans buried their dead in clusters. Fourth-century Romans built a cathedral atop ancient graves. Long-ago Parisians layered bodies in large open pits in churchyards, until Napoleon returned the care of the dead to the state once again and changed the way we see graveyards.
In his quest to know more about these places for departed loved ones, Stanford visited the Scavi in Rome, to see the place where St. Peter is believed to be buried. He explains how cemeteries came to be, and he visits one in Edinburgh that’s guarded by a statue of a little dog – which is good, since that cemetery was once known for its grave robbers. He walked through a Paris graveyard known for its famous inhabitants, examined Victorian mourning rituals, and dropped in on a Jewish cemetery that’s been nearly forgotten for decades. Near a poppy field, he talked with a member of a Commission that “tends 1,700,000 graves in 134 countries,” and he visited the place where he hopes his own bones may lie someday…
Sounds a little gruesome? Yes, it is a bit – but “How to Read a Graveyard” is also impossible to tear yourself away from, especially if you’re the touristy type.
And that’s the biggest surprise in this book: author Peter Stanford doesn’t tell you much about “reading” a graveyard; in fact, that aspect of this book is included in a slim few pages in the back. Instead, Stanford takes readers on a lengthy tour of cemeteries (both notable and ignored), graves (both famous and infamous), and funeral practices (both past and present). That could have the curious effect of whetting the appetites of inquisitive travelers everywhere.
And so, I’m glad to see that this book is now out in paperback, which makes it easy to tuck into a backpack or carry-on. If you’re fascinated with cemeteries and their marble statuary, then “How to Read a Graveyard” could be monumental.