BRIGHTON, England — Ramona and I are constantly asked, “What is it with you guys and cemeteries?” It is true that on any trip, our social media feeds will feature at least one set of photos of graves.
So what is it that we find so fascinating? Well, for one thing, they are dead quiet (sorry, last intentional pun I promise).
But seriously, our vacations often consist of running from museum to gallery to historical monument, and a stroll through a random graveyard can be quite a pleasant escape.
I am not interested in pristine, well-manicured cemeteries. I like the ones that are overgrown in places, full of broken headstones and random fallen statuary. Woodvale cemetery in Brighton is full of broken graves. They are not the object of some mismanagement. It is just time taking its toll, and the graves forgotten or ignored by family. Sometimes, a 100-year-old grave has a bright, modern marble headstone, with the names or names of the deceased etched sharply into the stone. Obviously someone is paying attention.
But what of the others? The cemetery stretches for half a mile up a steep incline. The trees are thick away from the central road which leads to the church, and many have grown up through the middle of graves, breaking the stones and toppling the headstones. I find it comforting that whomever was sleeping underneath is more than likely part of the rich foliage that now offers shade.
The older headstones are weathered and faded, the once crisp lines washed away to almost nothing in the 150 years since they were interred. We try to read the names, especially the ones where some long-ago relative thought enough to regale us with a little bit of history. He was a butcher, a policeman, a city councilor, or he was Sir Edward So-and-So of the Queen’s Royal Fusiliers.
Wives are buried with husbands — one headstone recorded a wife buried with both her husbands. I wonder if the first was comfortable spending eternity with his replacement?
On our most recent trip (yes we go to this one on each trip), we discovered a section that contained the graves of many people from the same years and roughly the same ages — 1914-18, during World War I. There were mentions of good sons, their lives cut short, and stories of bravery in action.
Many of them were from the three South Downs battalions that suffered massive losses at the Battle of the Boar’s Head, a diversionary raid the day before the Battle of the Somme, meaning it is all but forgotten. The three battalions finished with 366 killed and more than 1,000 wounded or captured. More than 70 percent were from Sussex and many were from Brighton.
The most poignant gravestone told of one young man, died in August 1917 from wounds he received in battle in March 1916. It was obviously important to whomever commissioned the headstone that we knew he took that long to die. With the state of medicine back then, I wondered how much pain he must have been in. If I remember, he was barely 20.
To be standing at this soldier’s grave, 100 years after his death, a tree nudging the stone sideways from one corner, I thought about him for a moment, then, squinting in the bright sunlight, with the faint hum of traffic from behind the stone wall, I walked up the hill to a lovely broken statue and took a photo. One hundred years ago, I like to think he enjoyed a moment in the sun, far away from the bloody battlefield.
Life is for the living, and sometimes it takes the dead to remind us to appreciate that.