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How to Read a Graveyard, by Peter Stanford - review

How to Read a Graveyard Peter Stanford

Bloomsbury, pp.263, £16.99

Peter Stanford likes cemeteries. Daily walks with his dog around a London graveyard acclimatised him, while the deaths of his parents set him wondering about customs of mourning and places of burial. Over a couple of years he visited a number of sites, including the war graves of northern France, the catacombs of Rome and a contemporary woodland burial park in Buckinghamshire. He makes no claim to a comprehensive survey, but it seems perverse not to visit Highgate cemetery, yet succumb to the tourist trap of the Père-Lachaise in Paris. To extrapolate about graveyards from a visit to Père-Lachaise would be like going to Harrods in order to find out about provinical high streets. But disagreeing with the author is part of the fun of this absorbing book.

The tone is informal but not facetious. Stanford is engaging and full of curiosity and refreshingly uncynical: he admits to succumbing to occasional tears at the war graves and elsewhere and never resorts to the easy mockery of Jessica Mitford or Evelyn Waugh’s (admittedly very funny) investigations into the dismal trade. Stanford doesn’t have the wisdom of Thomas Lynch (whose The Undertaking is essential reading for the morbid), but Lynch is a poet as well as a funeral director, which gives him the advantage. Nevertheless there are pleasing nuggets on nearly every page. We learn that Dr Spock’s greeting on Star Trek derives from Jewish blessing; that British wolves died out after graveyards became walled, presumably because they were thus deprived of food; that Woking cemetery once boasted its own branch line, the London Necropolis Railway.

How to Read a Graveyard displays a remarkable gift for the infelicitous phrase. As early in the text as the introduction, Stanford asserts that: ‘Walking round a cemetery is rather like rummaging among old socks that lie buried in frayed pillowcases. It sets us remembering, reflecting and puzzling.’ Really? At the war graves he says roses and irises are ‘as delicate as the poppies in the battlegrounds’. I kept shouting ‘Oh no they’re not!’, like a child at the panto.

Death gives us some of our most sumptuous words: ossuary, catafalque, columbarium. But Peter Stanford favours the sort of language more properly associated with a leisure-centre subcommittee: ‘Twin key concepts’, ‘that’s not an option here’, ‘referenced’ and the now ubiquitous ‘iconic’.  Visiting the Somme, he finds that ‘history hangs heavy here’; gravestones provide a ‘visceral encounter’. (This is not only lazy, but untrue. If viscera are what he’s after he should be looking at Ancient Egyptian canopic jars, not English headstones.)

We live in a time when clutter clearing is so fashionable as to have become commodified. High streets shops like Lakeland and Muji sell us boxes in which to put our surplus stuff, while paid professionals may be hired by the hour to come to our houses and help us throw things away. There are even television programmes devoted to this growth industry. At the same time publisher’s editors, the clutter-clearers of prose, have all but disappeared. This is bad luck on Peter Stanford. How to Read a Graveyard is an excellent idea and his intentions are clearly honourable. A good editor could have wrought an excellent book from this material. It is still a fine and fascinating one.

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