Walking fatigue is everywhere. It is the idea of it, rather than the actual one-foot-in-front-of-another business. Much as I have enjoyed watching my usual route behind the dump and along the cycle path evolve from frozen to liquid mud, spotting the first nitrous oxide cartridges of the year blooming in the undergrowth, I am officially mad with boredom. It has been six months since the exhilarating time someone set fire to a sofa along this route and my sluggish synapses need stimulation.
So, now I walk to the cemetery. A brutal (and very funny) slur last month by the Canadian writer Monica Heisey – on the “joyless trudge” that is the British walk – highlighted walking to the cemetery as an egregious example of our national brand of self-denial as leisure activity. On behalf of graveyard trudgers nationwide, I must defend the cemetery walk.
Many of ours are beautiful and surprising; touchingly alive. Probe and people reveal their favourites. London’s “magnificent seven”, including star-studded Highgate and Kensal Green, get most votes, but others are spectacular, from Whitby to Arnos Vale in Bristol, or Bunhill Fields in Islington, where I used to spend office lunch breaks, sharing meal-deal crusts with the squirrels between William Blake and George Fox.
My local is 10 hectares (24 acres) of lovingly maintained wilderness in the heart of York. It is home to birds, bees and butterflies, with an orchard of fruit trees, grass and briars left long, and trees big enough that I can spend 20 happy minutes failing to spot a noisy woodpecker. Sandwiched between a playground and allotments, here death is in the midst of, and sustaining, life.
But it is a cemetery: you can’t help but focus on the death bit. The complacency-piercing field of tiny stones for babies and children at the entrance makes sure of that. You can, if you wish, follow an “Accidental deaths – Victorian” trail, a litany of grisly passings straight out of Edward Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies, or track the pale, neat stones commemorating boys lost in Flanders (many bear fresh flowers, left by goodness knows who).
I am drawn to the graves that speak to a personality: covered with multicoloured crocheted flowers, surrounded by bird feeders, guarded by gnomes or wind chimes. There is a surprising amount of grave tinsel and baubles. I like it – the idea of sharing a celebration with the dead is comforting and quite un-British.
My mum is buried here. I never know what to do when I reach her grave: first, congratulate myself on finding it – it is only this year I have worked out which granite monument to a local alderman marks the right turning. But then what? I usually give her headstone an embarrassed pat and look around at her neighbours. There is a new arrival in this quiet, green corner: a boy from my son’s school, unthinkably dead at 17, his fresh grave a mountain of spring flowers, pain expressed in beauty.
This has been a terrible time for death: the sheer amount of it, but also in the curtailed, frustrated and forbidden rituals and habits that give fresh grief its rhythms. Writing of her father’s death last summer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said that, among Igbo people in Nigeria, “an almost existential fear is to be deprived of a proper funeral”. In the past year, hundreds of thousands have lived that fear. I read recently the claim that there is no defining image of the pandemic, but, for me, there is: it is anonymous men in PPE burying 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab without his family.
Not everyone needs a place to remember their dead, but the need to give loss a shape and to experience it physically and collectively is universal. Researchers are starting to explore how death lived through a video link to a crematorium, or sitting Shiva online, is affecting us: not well, unsurprisingly.
Modern Britain is uneasy with grief. When even our stilted rites (good suits and graveside awkwardness, strong tea and sandwiches) are taken away, what is left?
Maybe that is why we are turning to cemeteries on our constitutionals. The Victorians, who built most of them, wove death into life quite naturally; something in their assurance of a durable community of the living and the dead offers real comfort.