Among the stones and bones


How to Read a Graveyard by Peter Stanford (Bloomsbury)

- Reviewed by Thomas Marks

‘It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place’: so wrote Percy Shelley of the Non-Catholic Cemetery in Rome, where he had buried his son in 1819 and where his own ashes would rest from 1822.

Shelley’s words, beyond recognising the place’s remarkable beauty, suggest how a cemetery might nourish the minds of the living: by allowing them to imagine their own deaths.

Peter Stanford’s thesis, in this modest, personal journey through western European graveyards, is that we have turned our backs on death; that in disregarding both the rituals and architecture of grief, we are in fact neglecting ourselves. Increasingly, he writes, ‘we rely on undertakers and tasteful velvet curtains… to draw a veil over the physical reality of death’.

If we attended more to the dead, we might establish a clearer context for our own mortality. It is a simple and sympathetic premise.

There is a faint paradox here, since it is the widespread taste for cemetery tourism – be it architectural, celebrity-driven, or more meditative – that provides the target audience for this type of book. But what distinguishes Stanford’s account from more factual graveyard guides is its subjectivity: this is a history of burial traditions that interleaves frankly with its author’s own concerns about dying.

One chapter is given over to the churchyard at St Margaret’s Church in Burnham Norton, Norfolk, where Stanford maps out his own final resting place.

This book makes no effort to be comprehensive, which is no bad thing: few subjects are as vast and daunting as how we represent and respond to death. But this does make for some surprising decisions. There is no chapter dedicated to any of the so-called ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries – including Highgate and Kensal Green – which created a great ring of necropolises around London following their establishment in the 1830s and 1840s.

Instead, Stanford is content to drift around the lesser-known Paddington Old Cemetery as he ruminates on Victorian burial reform.

The book does follow a broad chronology, however, reaching from the now subterranean scavi (excavations) beneath St Peter’s in Rome – the first-century graveyard said to contain the tomb of St Peter – to a modern woodland burial park in Buckinghamshire, conceived as a benign space of memory and renewal.

It is salutary to be offered this long view: it gives Stanford the opportunity to trace fluctuating Western attitudes to practices such as cremation (taboo in Britain until the 1880s), as well as allowing him to plot out the long memorial tradition that he fears has been ruptured…

Full review in The Telegraph, London:

Peter Stanford on his book:

Extract from How to read a graveyard in The Independent:

Writer Iain Banks faces his own mortality:

Wikipedia on Peter Sanford:

Buy this book:

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