A Tomb With a View by Peter Ross

Reviewed by Gill Davies

Just a few days ago my partner and fellow Shiny reviewer Basil Ransome Davies found a new walk to do in these times of Covid-inspired local diversions. From the path alongside the River Lune he took footpaths and byways across Lancaster and Morecambe to link up two small cemeteries and a crematorium. We have been walking in cemeteries here and abroad for many years – they provide an immediate condensation of their local histories and cultures and a usually deserted place to walk in an urban setting. Since the start of the pandemic many of us have been discovering new spaces within a familiar city or town-scape. But it is especially delightful to encounter peaceful green spaces full of wildlife and intriguing personal histories. And this is what cemeteries have to offer. Peter Ross has also been visiting graveyards for several years and in this book he has brought together a fine collection. The subtitle, “The stories and glories of graveyards,” points to his focus on the living as well as the dead. The glories come from the stones and memorials, and many of the stories come from the people he meets, the conversations they strike up and the curious lives they lead. The geographical range goes from the north of Scotland to the south coast of England and west to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. He visits places including the famous and monumental (e.g. Highgate, Kensal Green, Glasnevin) and the obscure (St Finnans Isle, Hythe ossuary). His stories are often bizarre, such as the vigils at and consecration of the Crossbones graveyard for prostitutes in Southwark or a Viking handfasting ceremony in the Nonconformist chapel of Arnos Vale cemetery in Bristol.

While not a history of cemeteries, the book is full of interesting historical detail about the great Victorian garden cemeteries designed to replace overflowing church graveyards and thus combat the spread of typhus and cholera. There was also a deal of civic and national pride involved – so Kensal Green was London’s answer to Pere Lachaise in Paris. Ross charts the sad decline and neglect of the great Victorian private cemeteries but shows how many of them have risen again as enthusiastic Friends groups, local councils and others have found ways of preserving them. Some are opened up to the living for tours (of which the “Queerly Departed” tour of the graves of LGBTQ people in Brompton cemetery is a fine example), others as wedding venues. And they have all become more and more popular for recreation. 

Cemeteries have long been a focus for visits to the famous but – thanks to knowledgeable guides – the obscure or less famous are now also visited. In the book we learn about forgotten figures like Lilias Adie, an elderly Scot who was imprisoned as a witch in Fife in 1704. She died before she could be executed and was buried in the tidal mud under a sandstone slab where the sea would sweep over her grave and keep the good folk of the kirk safe from her spells. And there’s Phoebe Hessel ( the Stepney Amazon) who served as a private soldier from the age of fifteen in the mid 1700s. She followed her sweetheart into battle rather than be separated from him. Then there is Phoebe’s near contemporary, Peter the Wild Boy, who was “found” in a forest in Germany and brought back for the illumination and amusement of the English court. “He was commodified, intellectualised, became a creature of ink and paint and wax, and was almost certainly unaware of all the fuss.” When he proved to be neither illuminating nor amusing, he was sent away to the countryside – where he does at least seem to have been fairly content. Perhaps the most obscure are the unknown dead found in Irish cillini. One such is a patch of wasteland on the edge of a Belfast golf course where Roman Catholic doctrine dictated that un-baptised babies be buried in unconsecrated ground in unmarked graves. There are several instances of really poignant encounters. For example in Kensal Green cemetery there is a recently erected, very elaborate memorial – at least as imposing as its Victorian predecessors – that was erected by his father to Medi, an 11 year-old boy who died in a horse riding accident. Another story that stands out is that of Shane MacThomais, a cemetery guide at Glasnevin who chose it as the place to quietly end his life.

A Tomb With A View is full of these and many other fascinating stories. And the nature of his subject means that Ross takes readers through art, literature, popular music, theatre, sentimental stories, the comic and the weird. He says early in the book that it is “like the best sort of funeral … a celebration, not a lament.” That is true. But he is not afraid to deal with the darkest and most distressing aspects of his subject too. He includes examples of both the barbaric past (the witch’s grave in Torry Bay) and the barbaric present (the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, the shooting of Lyra McKee in Belfast). And there are political stories like those of the  World War 1 conscientious objectors held in Richmond Castle in Yorkshire, and the Irish republican “martyrs” in Milltown, Belfast and Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery. He respectfully observes the rites of different faiths and cultures, looks at Christian, Muslim and Natural burials and talks to the people who organise and carry them out. The detail is always fascinating and the people Ross meets are treated with the same dignity that they themselves employ in their rituals. This is a richly fascinating and often moving book that even non-taphophiles will enjoy.

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Peter Ross, A Tomb With A View (Headline, 2021).  9781472267788,  368pp., paperback.

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