The oldest churchyard in Torquay is being used by people openly having sex and sunbathing nude in broad daylight. This was how it was reported in the local newspaper, of course — ‘broad daylight’ is a phrase that is only ever used by subeditors trying to make things sound more depraved. (Who sunbathes except in broad daylight?) It was not the first such report since the pandemic began: in June, a couple were witnessed coupling in Brandwood Cemetery in Kings Heath, Birmingham; police were called amid concerns over public indecency, and fears that they may not even have been from the same household. A few weeks earlier, another pairing was witnessed in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene, Sutton-in-Ashfield.
It is tempting to assume that these cases are a product of the pandemic. After all, there was a similar spate of graveyard sex during the Black Death: prostitutes solicited in cemeteries and orgies were held amongst the graves. It was so bad in Champfleur, France, that a papal official had to threaten excommunication for anyone indulging in ‘unseemly acts’ on churchyard graves. In the aftermath of war, too: in Naples immediately after liberation, according to Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44, it was so commonplace to have sex on gravestones that it became an embarrassing breach of etiquette to greet someone on the bus route to the cemetery.
But people don’t only have sex in graveyards when their world is overturned by pandemic or war. Since Roman times — when Martial observed that funerary monuments hid the filthiest prostitutes — the cemetery has been a place for transgressive sex. And not just for Goths (Père Lachaise had to introduce a code of conduct after fans kept having sex on Jim Morrison’s grave), or Gothic writers (Mary Shelley reputedly lost her virginity on her mother’s gravestone in St Pancras cemetery), or plain weirdos like Yeats’s Maud Gonne, who tried to conceive a second child in the tomb of her first.