Whenever I wander from the topic of books, it’s inevitable that I’ll leave some of my lovely literary readers behind – just because you like books doesn’t mean you’ll share my taste in CDs, films, cakes, cats, donkeys… but today’s post might alienate even more than usual! Because I’m going to write about graveyards. Well, not really graveyards-plural, just graveyard-singular: Holywell Cemetery. It’s attached to St. Cross Church in Oxford, where I used to worship, and which closed down three years ago (see my post here.) I had half an hour to spare the other day, so off I went with my camera…
I often sought refuge there as an undergraduate – being a country boy stranded in a city, this was the closest I could find to home. Holywell Cemetery has a policy of leaving different areas untended in various cycles, for reasons to do with wildlife etc. I believe, so there are always plenty of beautifully overgrown areas.
But my love of Holywell Cemetery doesn’t lie entirely in its rural feel. A lot of people find graveyards spooky or disconcerting. Not I. For me, a deep peacefulness pervades them. Entering a cemetery, one seems to have escaped time. Those born in 1650 lie alongside those born in 1950, all equal.
But what really fascinates me, having said that, what is above ground, and the infinite variety there. Tombstones. The lasting monuments to individuals really were varied – through the years, but also according (I assume) to wealth. Some were huge and ornate:
Others were tiny; you can barely see this one hidden amongst the brambles. It made me wonder – did that person (name now illegible) die after everyone they knew, or were their grieving family too poor to afford more than this small slab?
I think that’s what I treasure about cemeteries – it’s like rows and rows of book covers. You can deduce a little, but only a little. Unlike books, the stories aren’t waiting to be revealed – tombstones offer all the information there is, unless one is willing to bury oneself in record offices. There are mysteries in each epitaph – what, for example, is the story behind this?
‘Martha Hawkins. Died August 11th 1849. Aged 18 years.’ The very barest outline of a life, but why so young at her death? Who chose this inscription – who mourned Martha’s passing and celebrated her life? All these brief clues to lived lives. I could read tombstones all day – the whole spectrum of emotions are there. Joy, grief. Regret, triumph. Simplicity, complexity.
Above all – love. The final words that will be dedicated to someone – and the words they choose hold such importance, often amongst such simplicity. Unsurprisingly, I was especially touched by those triumphant headstones which proclaimed Bible verses.
Who could fail to be moved by these three words?
‘Toby Kay. Died at birth’. There was another similar tombstone, for a baby who had lived for 18 days. It also had a little engraving of a toy duck. But since it was only a few years old, I thought it best not to take a photo or post it here, since the grief is still fresh. Other markers tell their own tale of history:
The circular plaque reads: ‘This cross near his sister’s grave stood where Ronald rests in the R Berks cemetery, Ploegsteert Wood, Belgium.’
Nor is Holywell Cemetery without its fair share of famous ‘residents’. Two Kenneths might be of interest – Grahame and Tynan.
And then, of course, there are some tombstones that are simply beautiful, and examples of fine artistry. The first of those below was perhaps my favourite that I saw – not as ornate as others, but perfectly appropriate for the setting.
If you are ever visiting Oxford, I recommend that you make time to visit Holywell Cemetery – and not in a rush, either, but slowly and contemplatively. Stepping into the graveyard, and walking between the tombstones, time seems to stand still – or simply not to matter. Time has melded all the decades into one, here. Beautiful craftsmanship sits alongside the simple and unassuming. Lengthy epitaphs are next to those striking by their brevity – which, in turn, stand by those which time has rubbed illegible. Each headstone reflects a life, lived for a hundred years or a single day, and each of those lives reflects outwards to mother, father, siblings, spouse, children, grandchildren… It is a beautiful place to be, and not just for the eye. It is beautiful for the spirit and the mind and the soul.