I’d never thought much about cemeteries, but a couple of projects have focused my mind on the subject. First of all, the local residents’ group partnered the school to produce a map of Blackball Cemetery graves. We get a lot of family visiting the place trying to locate an ancestor.
But it proved that the cemetery had been administered over its lifetime by a variety of bodies, each of whom had differing records. Collating these, plus what remains legible on tombstones, proved time consuming. And then some graves had crumpled into the earth and one was struck by the inevitable subsidence as the coffin and body rot, leaving a space that the earth above fills. As we produced the map it seemed that underneath the ground lay a miniature and crumbling suburb, one which I was not sure I wished to inhabit.
The map was produced and mounted. But then an old lady died and when the family tried to get a plot, the council announced the cemetery was full and she had to be buried elsewhere, which caused considerable upset. There was land for an extension, so after some lobbying – what seems to work is to produce one’s own estimate based on a local contractor’s fee plus some volunteer work ($2000) to shame the council (who estimated $60,000) into fronting up with $20,000.
The extension was finished two weeks ago, just in time to receive Cliff the Boxer. There’s beginning to be a local way of doing a funeral: Colin builds a simple coffin, and the mourners fill in the grave. So, a new subdivision for the dead begins.
I recently came across mention of a Sardinian novel, The Day of Judgement by Salvatore Satta, who, after having a manuscript rejected as a young man, became a lawyer, but in his old age, secretly wrote a novel about the rural town he was brought up in. It was published and has a considerable reputation. It is available as an e-book and there’s a marvelous passage about the local cemetery, which the elderly writer visits.
This is the place. There are the two marble angels, one bent mournfully above the other, eternally lamenting the proud dead of the Mannu family. Here is the tombstone of Boelle Zicheri, the pharmacist who left everything to the hospital out of hatred for his relatives, and that of Don Gaetano Pilleri, who unceasingly pursued his loathing for the priests; here are the first graves of the families of shepherds, with their nicknames that became surnames… here is the broken pillar commemorating a young man, with the inscription-“You weep, and I sleep far off in the graveyard”- that used to trouble my nights; here is the modest iron railing that encloses Maestro Manca, preventing him from going back to the low dive where he slid under the table, dead while imbibing his last glass of wine…
Satta writes of “the bones of infinite generations heaped up and mingled together, being themselves turned to earth.” And of Milieddu the grave digger who “seemed to ask forgiveness of each dead man for having to bury him…It was as if everyone had a second self, himself and Milieddu: and in conversation, when someone was asked if he was really sure of what he was saying, the answer was: ‘A man’s sure only of Milieddhu’s shovel’.”
I once played the Gravedigger in Hamlet – in fact I played three parts in that production: The Ghost, the Player King and the Gravedigger –all great roles which seemed to intertwine… But I am a long way away from the crumbling underground suburb and the digger driver who digs the modern grave. Nevertheless, cemeteries remain evocative places.
And while on the subject, the current presidential election seems like the corpse of the US empire; the only worry being the possibility it will require the planet to bury it.