Peter Alan Ross is a multi-award winning Scottish journalist and author. His latest book, A Tomb with a View, an exploration of the ‘stories and glory of graveyards’ was just named the Saltire Scottish non-fiction book of the year.
What did you learn about our society’s relationship with death in writing the book?
A Tomb with A View isn’t so much about ‘death’ as it is ‘the dead’. What I found is that many people, even if they don’t have a religious faith, have a sense that the dead – and especially *their* dead, the people they loved in life and continue to love in death, are present.
There is, of course, the idea that people live on in memory, that you are never truly dead until the last person who knew you is dead, but my feeling is that many go further than this: they feel that the dead are with them, that they are around us, not quite a presence, but certainly not an absence. This makes sense, I think.
Just as people leave physical traces – a fingerprint on a pair of glasses, or perfume on a scarf – they can surely leave some lingering imprint of their character and emotional lives; what some might call the soul.
How do Catholic cemeteries differ from other graveyards?
As far as Catholic burial places go, my focus in the book was on the graves of Irish Republican paramilitaries in Belfast, and on cillini – the unofficial resting places of infants who died unbaptised and were, therefore, deemed to be in Limbo and not permitted to be buried in consecrated ground. In other words, I didn’t look too closely at cemeteries associated with mainstream Catholicism.
However, what I did find, in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery in particular, is that the headstones and memorials there were very different from what I had encountered growing up in Scotland within a vague Church of Scotland tradition. Seeing statues of Christ and his mother used as headstones is quite alien to me, but I must say I do appreciate the aesthetics of that iconography.
I remember one grave in Milltown, where someone’s granny had been buried quite recently, and on the plinth of the headstone had been placed a small figure of the Virgin Mary and a bar of Fry’s Chocolate Cream. I was touched by that gesture to the departed woman’s faith and her sweet tooth, and was pleased to notice that the chocolate wrapper and Our Lady’s robe were the same shade of blue.
Did the writing of the book change the way you view/interact with religious faith?
I saw the good and the bad of religion while working on A Tomb with A View. Huge numbers of people over many generations were caused pain upon pain by being not permitted to bury their unbaptised infants in consecrated ground. However, it is also clear that faith can be a huge comfort to people who have been bereaved, and, more specifically, priests, imams and other faith leaders can bring comfort by being with people in their loss. The book’s not about faith, though. It’s about love.
How does the Irish approach to death differ from the Scottish one?
When I spent time in Ireland and Northern Ireland, I was very struck by the conversational way people their have with their dead. I remember in City Cemetery, Belfast, on a warm Easter morning, encountering a woman sitting in the sun on her mother’s grave, leaning back on the stone, and chatting away. I grew up associating family visits to the cemetery with pain and a sense of duty. What I found again and again in Ireland is that you could just stop by, as if popping in for a cuppa, and pick up the conversation with your dad or your brother or aunty from where you broke off last time. People were going there with flasks and sandwiches. It’s something I see in the Muslim cemetery near my home: people treating it as a visit to the person, a catching them up with the news, rather than a visit to the grave. It seems like a healthy, happy thing to me.
What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve found in a graveyard?
When I visited Kensal Green Cemetery in London, I went to see the great Victorian tombs. What I didn’t expect to find was a new memorial that dwarfed even the grandest of the 19th century work.
This was the mausoleum of a boy who had died at the age of eleven, just a few years previously, and in his memory his father, an Iranian businessman, had designed and built an extraordinary monument: a half-circle thirty metres long by fourteen deep and eight high, with Corinthian columns and iconography that drew on both Christian and Islamic tradition.
The boy’s grave was planted with roses and pelargoniums and lilies, and butterflies glided past as I sat with his father and talked about the son he had loved and lost. This is what I mean when I say that cemeteries are libraries of the dead. There are stories everywhere, and I was privileged to hear many of them in the course of writing my book.
Tomb with a View is available in paperback from all good booksellers now.
Pull quote: Many people, even if they don’t have a religious faith, have a sense that the dead – and especially *their* dead, the people they loved in life and continue to love in death, are present.