Call me ‘weird’, but I don’t spend much time in cemeteries and churchyards at night. I need to lurk in graveyards at dusk/after dark way more often. Instead, I tend to visit them in daylight hours. Having said that, in a previous post, I did reflect on the special dynamic of light and dark when visiting a snow-covered churchyard at night.
So, I recently went for a walk at dusk in a cemetery and found myself drawn to the lights.
Note: I’ve anonymised the grave, and not mentioned its location, since these dimensions are not appropriate or relevant.
It was otherwise a relatively typical ‘new’ (early 21st-century) cremation grave plot in a UK cemetery, with a small black headstone, text and a series of floral offerings and a butterfly memorial plaque. A bridled horses head constituted the motif beside the prefix ‘Loving Memories of’.
Yet it was the lights that drew me to it. On either side were solar-powered garden lights spiked into the grave in front of the headstone. In addition, there were two other lights. First, on the right, there was a yellow-petalled flower with a light as its stigma. Then, to the left, a presumably seasonal addition was a trail of solar-powered fairy lights, presumably added for the Christmas/winter season. These were wrapped along the yew bush behind the graves and around the small yew in a basket.
Now, the point is this was the exception, not the rule. Most graves were unlit.
Yet there was another area of the same cemetery where a significant minority of graves were lit up with solar-powered lights: the ‘baby garden’. At night, it is ‘alive’ with lights of all different kinds and colours, presumably all again solar-powered.
So, I think we need to give more attention to the distinctive nocturnal qualities and affordances of mortuary material culture in the present day, where clearly infants are particularly ‘lit’ up as well as animated with windmills and furnished with toys and ornaments. These lights serve to highlight the grave for mourners, and afford a vibrancy to the place where the dead reside.
Indeed, the lighting up of Mabel – the ‘Chewing Gum Girl’, at the Overleigh Cemetery, Chester, is an example where this association of light with infant and child death is back-projected onto mortuary monuments in the historic past.