I don’t believe in the supernatural – I’m not convinced that a shiver down your spine is the feel of a stranger’s footsteps traipsing across your future grave or that a sneeze is a spirit crossing your path.
Clairvoyance and superstition are not the reasons why I could pass hours weaving in and out of the headstones in an old cemetery.
I’m not soul-searching as I walk from row to row, learning faceless names from fading inscriptions. So religion isn’t the answer for anyone who might be struggling to understand the roots of such a seemingly gothic pastime.
Eerie as horror stories would have you believe them, the way I see it, in the cold light of the day, the cemetery could be the world’s humblest stage for its most compelling love stories – the real ones.
Those little arching mounds of rock that so many of us bypass every day encapsulate an entire life in just a few phrases. And what’s more, those words have been carefully thought up by the ones who knew and loved those people the best – the ones that will probably miss them the most.
Take the time to read them and some will tell the tragedy of a missed opportunity to make amends. Others – scribed in the darkest hours of grieving – will question how life can possibly continue. A lot of the time it’s obvious from the fresh flowers in front of the plaque’s bygone dates that somehow, thankfully, it has managed to.
I believe that our grief is as important a reflection of our relationships as our love is. It is perhaps down to the authors of the epitaphs which of the two they are best able to put into words at the time of their loss.
Occasionally – frustratingly – gravestones are a mystery, inscribed with an unknown quote or unsigned verse which we will never really know the significance of. But then of course, in contrast, others have been so powerful that they have become etched into our minds and our heritage alike. Take the painful irony from the nameless grave of John Keats – the young English poet widely respected only after his early death in 1821 – who chose for his final words: ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.’ It was his closest friends that added the preceding lines – against Keats’ wishes – to reveal “the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies” as the root of the poet’s sorrowful farewell. That says love to me.
The reality is that it all comes down to a few lines on a headstone. I don’t have first-hand memories of the people whose stories I come across – I never knew them in order to forget them but I very much doubt that their lives were forgettable.
In due course, once the authors of a loved one’s epitaph have had their own written for them, the significance of words lies in the hands of the oblivious stranger who stands before their grave by chance. One day someone will be staring at my own. Will they take the time to remember me?