Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Category: Children

The Merry Cemetery:The Dacian Way of Death

 I have never shared the view that cemeteries are gloomy places but will allow that they may be tinged with sadness. In the Northern Maramures region of Romania however is a cemetery like no other: The Merry Cemetery (Cimitir Vesel) at Sapanta. Here  the celebration of life takes precedence over the grief of death, and death itself is no solemn affair.

The Dacian Culture may have inspired these attitudes. Dacians, early inhabitants of these lands, believed in the immortality of the soul and for them the moment of death was one of exaltation, filled with supreme happiness  in anticipation of a better life. Herodotus describes how the Dacians were fearless in battle and joyful when dying, going laughing to their graves to meet their god, Zalmoxis.

The forest of oak headstones in the Sapanta cemetery  is the work of the wood carver Stan Ion Patras. Between 1935 and his death in 1977 he carved over eight hundred commemorative tablets, including his own. He painted these singular memorials in vivid, symbolic colours. Predominant is the radiant, deep “Sapanta blue” speaking of the sky, hope, freedom. Green represents life, yellow fertilility, red passion, and black death.White doves symbolise the soul and a blackbird hints at a suspicious death.

The Merry Cemetery

On the grave markers Patras carved  portraits  of the occupants and naive pictures  recording their occupations.

The Vet
The Teacher
The Woodman
The Shepherd

There is a distinctly gendered division of labour:

Weaving
Spinning
Cooking
More cooking

Below the painted carvings Patras inscribed epitaphs, written in the first person, enabling the inhabitants of the graves to tell the stories of their lives. Far from lauding them or whitewashing them with virtues, the whimsical, witty doggerel records indiscretions, shortcomings, weaknesses, faults, foibles, flaws, failings, and infidelities with cheerful insouciance. Even the modes of death, drowning, drinking, and  a disproportionate number of car accidents, provide a source of humour. And the soul who was murdered and buried without his head fails to disrupt the prevailing merriment:

Murdered and buried without his head

Yet even in Sapanta I found one grave which  broke with the relentless good cheer. The speaking poem of a three-year-old girl killed by a taxi read:

May you burn in hell

Taxi driver from Sibiu!

In all of Romania

You could find no other place

But here, near our house

To stop and hit me

And bring grief to my parents.

For as long as they live they will weep for me.

Three -year-old girl killed by a taxi from Sibiu

But habitually the latter day Dacians continue to greet death with equanimity; Patras’ apprentice, Dumitru PopTincu, continues his master’s work, and the burgeoning cemetery cocks a defiant snook at mortality.

The Thames is Capricious. We Escape Leptospirosis; Others are Less Fortunate

I had long harboured a desire  to swim in the River Thames. Conscious of my own limitations, this was no ambitious plan to cover the length (over two hundred miles, I don’t think so) nor to venture into the tidal waters below Teddington Lock. The Port of London Authority  strongly discourages both activities with dire warnings of powerful tides overpowering the strongest of swimmers; eddies and undertows sucking them under in seconds; danger from water traffic in the form of clippers, ferries and working boats; and the biting cold of the water leading to crippling breathing spasms.

Something more modest then, a  gentle width somewhere in the Middle Reaches of the Thames. Here opinion was divided. Public Health England warned of  gastrointestinal diseases from contaminated surface run off, and from  water containing raw sewage routinely pumped into the river after heavy rains; the possibilities of contracting Leptospirosis or Weil’s disease from animal urine; high recorded levels of microplastics in the water; and dangers of collision with leisure traffic. Enthusiasts, by contrast, rhapsodised about an arcadian Thames: a sparkling , idyllically pastoral river  with 125 species of fish, over four hundred invertebrates, and flourishing flora.

By dint of slightly overemphasising the latter perspective, I persuaded a friend to accompany me,  and we took to the river at Clifton Hampden. Our respective partners, both non-swimmers and of the firm conviction that immersion, in any volume of water greater than that required to fill a decent sized bathtub, is a supreme folly, sat on the bank guarding the clothes. They wore expressions which said No Good Will Come of This.

And it must be confessed that we entered the water with some trepidation, feeling our way cautiously out into the river, wary of what lay beneath our feet, dreading that moment when the cold-water hit our stomachs, alert to the dangers from passing boats, and with mouths firmly closed. But once in the river the pleasure of swimming, pushing weightlessly through the water, took over. It was not cold, it did not look particularly polluted, and folk waved cheerfully from passing boats. Across and back, and we turned around, enthusiastic to repeat the exercise.

Cautiously we set out: I let Kay take the lead… there might be something nasty under foot
Wild Swimming
Return Journey…
… With Mouths Firmly Closed
It was so nice, we did it twice
A Triumpal Return

Later in the pub we regaled our sceptical partners with the delights of Wild Swimming. But there was a sobering coda. Walking along the Thames Path a few miles downriver, we paused to admire the thirteenth century flint church of Saint Bartholomew  at Lower  Basildon, and in the churchyard discovered the  hauntingly beautiful grave of Harold and Ernest  Edward Deverell. Aged fifteen and sixteen, they drowned  while bathing close by in 1866. The marble sculpture of the two boys, in their old- fashioned bathing trunks, and looking far younger than their teenage years,  is heart-rending.

The grave at Lower Basildon
Looking much younger than their teenage years

They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided

A guide to the church  records  starkly: “ One brother got into difficulties and the other went to his aid: sadly, both drowned.”

There is a small risk  even in  those little adventures which look quite safe on a summer’s afternoon, and the boys’ deaths were tragic. Yet too much caution  renders human existence a tepid affair, with little point to life if we act in constant fear of its end.

The Lost Children of Holcombe

A  long track winding through a farmyard  leads to the Norman church of St. Andrew’s at Holcombe in Somerset. The  medieval village surrounding the church disappeared after the plague of 1348 when survivors moved to the new village a mile  away. The congregation continued to use the church until 1885, when a new church was consecrated in the village, and today the churchyard still receives burials. The old church,  built of coursed rubble with a slate roof, is now  under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust,  and witnesses only three or four services a year. But we obtained the key  from the pub in the village, and  viewed the box pews, the gallery, the carved hat pegs, the painted panels bearing the ten commandments in gold lettering, and the inverted Anglo-Saxon inscription on the recycled  stone in the porch.

Old St. Andrew’s church and graveyard
Inverted Anglo-Saxon inscription on recycled stone in porch

Walking through the Holcombe Valley and along the streams, gathering blackberries,  we caught glimpses through the trees of the tower at Downside Abbey. Returning to the graveyard we  could not have witnessed a  more tranquil scene, the leaves of ancient trees brushed by the soft autumn sun of a late afternoon, the older stones leaning companionably towards each other in the shadows, younger more upright ones sporting flowers.

But  amidst  this pastoral idyll, I found the most poignant of tombstones. A marble cross and five lambs mark the grave five children.

The inscription reads:

“In loving memory of

Bessie Pole, aged 10, Clifford Pole, aged 8

And Thomas Pole, aged 7.

Also Eveline Long, aged 11

And of Ewart Long, aged 8

Who were drowned in a pond in this parish

By the insecurity of the ice, Dec. 20 1899”

In the 1950s I was  part of the last generation of children who grew up relatively free from adult constraints, roaming unhindered and unsupervised with my friends wherever we chose from dawn to dusk and beyond. So I can easily imagine those children on that December day more than half century earlier, cheeks glowing, noses pink, muffled against the cold with coats, scarves, and hats, excited by the raw December weather, one of the younger ones dropping a glove and pulling the wet wool back on with exclamations of disgust. Then, enticed by the frozen pond, daring each other to step out onto it. One of the bolder spirits, moving gingerly at first, testing the ice, then, confidence increasing, jumping on it, and calling to the others. In turn they would have stepped onto the ice, following one another to the centre, and set about constructing a slide which would grow smoother as each one slithered over it laughing and shouting with delight. Then the sudden crack of the treacherous ice, the loss of balance, contact with the icy water, the panic and frightened screams, thrashing in the freezing pond as the ice broke up all around, struggling in vain to escape the danger, reaching out for the  safety of dry land. And silence. No doubt people saw them, heard them, tried to save them but the bitter water was quick and cruel.

Hundreds of us enjoyed the same pleasures on hundreds of ponds, it was part of the ritual of winter, a memory treasured in later, staider years. Sometimes the ice gave way, a momentary panic ensued, but  seldom with any great harm done, usually with no greater repercussions than freezing feet and wellingtons full of water. Then at home the clandestine attempt to dry out the wet socks in front of the fire before a parental eye caught sight of them.

But no providence protected these five children, a malevolent and  arbitrary fate plucked them away  to a cruel death .

Over a hundred years later  flowers and toys still appear  on the grave and visitors fall silent when they read the epitaph.

Flowers and toys left at the grave

I am surely not the only one imagining the ghostly figures on the pond, opening my mouth to call out a warning, but the words stopped as the waters close and silence ensues. Despite the warm afternoon we are all chilled by the random brutality of the grave’s story.

And yet the fates are not done,  for on the other side of the grave is another plaque:

“Also of

Harcourt Morley Long,

Who was drowned at Kilmersdon Common

July 27, 1894 aged 14 months

And was buried in this churchyard.”

The words come like a physical punch. Tragedy lies at the heart of the beautiful Holcombe churchyard and no pious words can gainsay it.

The Evacuees

The village of Mells in Somerset is a box of delights boasting a tythe barn, church and inn dating from the fifteenth century, an Elizabethan manor house, an eighteenth-century lockup, a war memorial designed by Lutyens, a sparkling brook and a community café. The terraced houses of medieval New Street lead to St. Andrew’s church which houses a fine collection of art by Gill, Burne-Jones, William Morris, Munnings and William Nicholson. The church yard plays host to a grand collection of memorials to famous people.

But the grave I always visit is a modest, unostentatious stone beside the north wall; a little bit overgrown, it bears the names of Bert and Amy Perry who died in the 1960s. Unlike most stones it was erected not by children or grandchildren but by six men whose names also appear on the stone: Alec McAllister, Fred Barnett, Eric Bounds, Colin Gilbert, Roy Bellion, and David Grey, and above their names a simple message:

“We thank them for their kindness and care during World War Two.
With love from the evacuees”

It has never surprised me that children evacuated from their homes during the London bombings often recount unhappy experiences: far from parents and familiar surroundings, sometimes foisted on host families who did not want them, on occasion subjected to harsh treatment. But this simple stone sings with happiness and I find it easy to imagine the six lads discovering the countryside, rambling through the fields, attending (perhaps reluctantly) the village school, exploring the Mells River and the ruins of Fussells’ Iron Works, and returning at the end of the day to the comforting care of the Perrys. They must have been an exceptional couple, welcoming not one but six boys into their home and lives. I found their story even more remarkable when I discovered that the evacuees were never destined for Mells. They were meant to go to Devizes and arrived in Mells due to an administrative miscalculation, their hosts then completely unprepared for their sudden arrival.

A few years ago, as I crossed the churchyard I spotted a new grave, but the name, Alec E. McAllister, was one I recognised. Erected by a loving family, the inscription explained the familiarity :

“Evacuated here as a London boy,
resting here as a true Mells man.”

I wondered if Alec McAllister had met his future wife in the village primary school all those years ago or on a visit in later years to the kindly Perrys. I had no need of the answer; the touching story told by the two graves was enough .

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