Meeting a Mourner
Yesterday I was at home doing work in quiet, but I spent a short while with my son: cycling around the neighbourhood. As you do, we ended up in the local cemetery, locked up our bikes by the entrance and we explored the older memorials and then the newest burial plots. My son wanted to explore inside the church itself but as expected it was locked.
As we approached the latest graves, we encountered an old man in a mobility scooter heading out of the cemetery. I have no idea how long he had been there but I presumed he had helpfully stopped his mobility scooter that moment on sight of a man with a small boy approaching and wanted to give us space. I made eye contact and smiled and said ‘hello’ but then headed into the cemetery via a different path so as to give him room to exit. Incidentally, I always give other mourners space when visiting cemeteries, avoiding them so as not to disturb their visit. Seeing I wasn’t passing him, he mumbled something at me like ‘help me’. I shifted direction and I went closer and realised that the man needed assistance but was reluctant to ask.
He had been vainly trying to use a twisted grass blade to hook up from the ground a wallet he had dropped. This was ingenious but futile. I then realised that he wasn’t simply bound to use the mobility scooter, there was simply no way he could have got out of the scooter to get his item and safely returned to his scooter without assistance. The man had no legs and the ground and his item was a good 5cm outside of his arms’ reach. He was stuck: not by his inability to get out of the cemetery, but for fear of leaving a valuable item behind.
I’ve no idea how long he had been there and how long he would have stayed there trying to pick up his dropped possession, but I was glad to help. He said ‘thank you’ and scooted off, leaving me and Tobias to explore the graves. Simply picking something up can help people and it is a rare example of interaction between living people involving artefacts in the cemetery context. Most artefacts in cemeteries are about interaction between the living and the dead.
Engaging with Graves
Having helped someone who didn’t want to leave something in the cemetery – an unplanned exchange of courtesy involving the movement of an artefact, we then explored what people do leave behind in this particular cemetery. Modern gravestones in Wales are mediated by portable artefacts placed on and around them.
I won’t represent here about the graves of the recent dead we encountered and the artefacts upon them. Still, it is fair to say we explored the varied colour, shape, size and both text and images upon the memorials themselves and the flowers, plants and artefacts placed in front of them and upon their bases.
We became accustomed to the particular range of portable items deposited on grave-plots and beside and upon memorials, including flowers, cherubs, gnomes, lanterns and a range of other garden ornaments and toys. It was also clear that the gravestones themselves are now afforded with motifs that serve as permanent versions of the artefacts around them; images of birds, animals, insignia that denote an affiliation with the dead person and an element of their ongoing relationship with the living.
Tobias, my son, wanted to spot all the animals and bird ornaments and representations on the memorials, of which there were a lot. Also, he was particularly intrigued by the fresh pile of sand beside a freshly dug grave, although I cruelly denied him permission to climb up it.
Artefacts create a familiar and repeated zone of engagement between mourners and those buried.
A Spec-tacular Find
Anyway, this is nothing but a preamble to a minor anecdote about one of the older graves, reflecting on the affording of personalities to recent graves by adding small items to them. On the way out, we noticed a pair of spectacles, well, cheap modern shades I suspect, placed on top of a gravestone of the late 19th century. This memorial was a standard late-Victorian Gothic form common in the area and familiar to me from my work at Overleigh cemetery in Chester.
Clearly the gardener or another passer by had done the same with the item as I had done to help the old man: picked it up and placed it where it won’t be lost. What’s might point? Well, it made me think about two things.
First: in a cemetery, small distinct artefacts and flowers are not only media for mourning, they are alerting. By this I mean that they draw the eye to particular graves over others. Not by intention, we visited this grave, because of the shades.
Of course if every grave had had them, it wouldn’t have worked. The artefact has to be distinct or unique for its message to be clear. My point: each recent grave sets its own distinctive mix of items added to it, making it alerting to the visitor. Yet, too many items, and it becomes a sea of stuff, an undifferentiated rubbish pile of votives. I’m not wishing to judge, just observe how volumes of ephemeral stuff, their variety, but also single items, can serve to memorialise.
Second: put glasses and/or a hat on anything and it is afforded with a human identity. This works for skeletons too. This gravestone already had an identity through the names upon it but the shades also did this. I don’t suggest the glasses were deliberately placed on it to afford it with anthropomorphic qualities, but portable items humanise stone and add humour to them. Portable modern items ‘clothe’ stones and create a familiar interface between visitor and the dead. This instance might have been happenstance and incongruous; there is no relationship between dead person named on the gravestone and the specs. Still, the act of raising up the specs and balancing them on the gravestone to assist in their rediscovery, creates a field of interaction around the gravestone.
I’m sure these issues have been discussed before, yet for me this non-votive balancing of specs on a stone drew these issues to my attention. We left the cemetery and cycled back home, having picked up something for the living, and observed something picked up and placed for the living to rediscovery, in the custody of the dead.