A Tomb With a View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards: Scottish Non-fiction Book of the Year 2021
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As the evening progresses someone turns to extreme measures to ensure their inheritance and one-by-one the bodies begin to pile up. Each chapter is standalone (although on the basic theme of death and graveyards) and some of them, especially later on, seem a bit unfocused, but I learned a lot and enjoyed it enormously. But empathy gets you the whole story, the kind of story Ross heard from that woman in Devon and which is echoed throughout this engaging book, filled as it is with life, and loss, and love. His journey will take him from the natural burial site of Sharpham Meadow in Devon where he meets Bridgitt and the resting place of her late husband Wayne where she is picking leaves off the discreet stone with his name on.
There are stories of witchcraft and stories of ghosts; burial grounds really reveal the range of human history and changing sets of beliefs. Ross shares how the Muslim cemetery is a waiting room for heaven and looks different than what we might expect of a cemetery. But to keep ourselves on our toes, we have a rule that author gender is alternated, girl-boy-girl-boy, and the continents always rotated (with occasional glitches).From the women from Wigtown who were tied to stakes and drowned for refusing to give up their Protestant faith to Hannah Twinnoy, who lies in a grave in Malmesbury Abbey and who became the first person in England to be killed by a tiger. Ross has provided me with knowledge I didn't want but I am grateful for the Cillini of Ireland - the places were until very recently in some places those who were not allowed in consecrated churchyards, including the mentally disabled, suicides, beggars, executed criminals, and shipwreck victims were placed but the vast majority were infants who died before baptism and were banned from heaven and sent to 'Limbo', a place which the Catholic Church has now decided doesn't exist. a considered and moving book on the timely subject of how the dead are remembered and how they go on working below the surface of our lives. An appreciation of lives lived and of the stories within them and a tribute to those whose business is dealing with the dead. Taphophiles – people who are interested in cemeteries, funerals and gravestones – are an interesting bunch.
Then there is Phoebe’s near contemporary, Peter the Wild Boy, who was “found” in a forest in Germany and brought back for the illumination and amusement of the English court.This soothing novel is a real recommendation not just for tapophiles (lovers of graves), but for everyone.
Completed in March 2020, on the eve of the first Covid-19 Lockdown, A Tomb with a View is a lyrical path through cemeteries, gardens and sacred grounds. I know Warriston Cemetery reasonably well, and even though it is no longer the vandalised junkie playground it was in the Eighties, it is hidden away from the rest of the city, half overgrown, well off the tourist trail, and with nothing neat, tidy or haut bourgeois about it at all. A fascinating and brilliant book, so unexpected and so life affirming - if that is not contradictory in a book about the dead.The Green Funeral Company offers an alternative path to the traditional funeral directors; one that urges creativity and is elemental in approach.
On Twitter someone described A Tomb With a View as a ‘conversation with a friend’, and I second this sentiment.
Thanks to Peter Ross's glorious book, I now know that I was - and still am, and forever shall be - a taphophile. These gardens of death provide ample prompts for both individual life histories as well as large historic events. In some ways, these people are the Thanatotic equivalents of the glorious eccentrics Ross has interviewed as a journalist. One of my favorite essays in the book introduces an Iranian father who built an exquisite monument to his 11-year-old son in London's poshest cemetery. Those in York, on a patch of grass between two busy roads which house cholera victims from an outbreak in 1832, or the ‘Navvies’ Graveyard which marks the graves of 37 unnamed Irish workers who died of typhus in 1847 while building the Caledonian Railway.