A few weeks ago, I ventured to Kent to say ‘hello’ to Robert Calvert, a pivotal member of the band, Hawkwind, whose physical remains rest alongside his son, Daren, at Minster. It was an exceptionally quiet Friday afternoon. A few people visited the cemetery to bring offerings to loved ones, but apart from them, I was alone, or was I? Liminally, I was surrounded by people who spoke to me without uttering a word…
I now find peace whilst walking within cemeteries. The serenades of the songbirds, the breeze drifting through the leaves, sunlight dappling, raindrops sprinkling down. For many, cemeteries evoke feelings of sadness, grief for those who have passed over, futures brought to a close, often, far too soon. Many of the people who have guided me through this life now dwell within Necropoleis. Initially, I too felt intense pain, and often anger, whenever I walked through the cemetery gates, passing the threshold between my life as it now was, and that which had come before. Yet one day, quite unexpectedly, a perceptual change transformed everything. I’m still not entirely sure as to how this metaphysical reboot commenced, but it had, and continues to have, a profound effect on me.
I had gone to see my dad who, physically, rests on the Isle of Wight. I always found these visits difficult, trying to reconcile feelings of intense loss alongside calls from the living to ‘perk up, your dad wouldn’t want to see you like this’, and they were right. He wouldn’t have wanted me to lose my life to mourning. Deep down I knew that I had to push past these feelings. I guess grief is a somewhat selfish thing. Dad hadn’t suffered, it happened so suddenly, so quickly, that he wouldn’t have even been aware. I was grieving for my loss, for knowing that I wouldn’t physically see him again during this lifetime, for not being able to say, ‘wander well’, or to tell him that I loved him. I was so focused on our lost future that I was at risk of losing our shared past. And then everything changed…
Dad lies next to a lovely lady called Diana, whose red mottled marble headstone gleams like a star in the little field where they repose. I hadn’t known Diana, had never even met her whilst out and about in the village, so how can I know that she was lovely? Well, in truth, I don’t, but from looking at her beautiful marker, the clearly heartfelt words that were etched upon it in gold font, I knew that she had been loved. I knew that she had travelled during her life, as her stone told me that she had been born in continental Europe at the outbreak of World War Two. It also told me that she was a wife, a mother, and a grandmother. From these few sentences I began to get some small grasp of Diana’s life. Of course, these were only fragments, the literal bare bones, so to speak, of a life lived, hopefully, richly, and deeply, but these words were enough to spark my interest, and, perhaps more importantly, my imagination.
I began wandering through the cemetery more regularly. Not through some ghoulish preoccupation, to revel in death, but in order to celebrate life. I started taking note of all the different grave markers and the stories that they had to tell. Just by perambulating through this wee village graveyard, I travelled all over the world, from the Far East to the tip of South America. I encountered people who had been born in and had lived all of their lives in the village, sharing their earthy beds with people who had come to the Island over the years for myriad different reasons. Some for work, others for safety, many for love. I met musicians, tailors, fishermen, teachers. Their headstones akin to highly abridged biographies which, although unable to convey the full extent of their diverse lives, permitted me a small insight into their stories through stone, words and images.
I had walked past these people so many times previously, but I hadn’t seen them. I’d only seen gravestones and flowery bouquets; some fresh, some as lifeless as the remains within the ground beneath their vases, and this was wrong. To see the cemetery this way was to do an injustice to all the individuals who now resided there, my dad included. For these are not simply places of death, of grief, they are also landscapes of life, often filled with lives that go back centuries. Tales of love, of loss, of adventure, of existence, are all to be found within cemeteries, both large and small. We have to reset how we perceive these spaces, learn to approach them, not as enclaves of the dead, but as animated places. Yes, graveyards are repositories of remembrance, but they also contain experience and knowledge accumulated over generations, through many different means.
Today marks 32 years since my father passed over. Even all these years later, it is still an ‘odd’ day for me. If I could go back and tell my younger self that 32 years later, she would be sat looking out upon beautiful fields, writing about death and remembrance in a good and positive way, she never would believe me. And yet, here I am, watching the breeze ripple through the tall grass over yonder, listening to Robert Calvert and Hawkwind on the stereo, and writing about how the lady buried next to my dad initiated an epiphany in me that helped kickstart my recovery from the loss of a dearly loved parent. Our lives are stories; ‘kitchen-sink dramas’, adventure, comedy, romance; often tinged, sadly, with regret, remorse and loss. These are our novels, our sagas, and even if not committed to paper, hard-drive, film, or music, the stories are there, just waiting to be heard, it is we who need to learn how to listen.