The exercise this month was to be inspired by a grave stone. Our member Cliff was inspired to write a polemic. A polemic is defined as a controversial argument, especially one refuting or attacking a specific opinion or doctrine.
Some people enjoy wandering around graveyards. What with Ebenezer here, Abraham, Mary and Elizabeth there, there is endless fascination. – for some. But for me there’s only a disturbing feel of dusty death, of decay and bleakness. This is especially true of old gravestones, of people who have died and gone so long ago, forgotten now, no doubt, their names and death dates battered and faded by winds and rain and neglect. No flowers now for them, only coarse grass blankets their space. It’s even sadder, I think, when I hear that a graveyard has become full up, no room for any more – unless, of course, when old graves are dug over to welcome new arrivals and that’s what happens on this island of ours, cramped for room even for the living. You get the feeling that with the passing of centuries old remains will be piled up in stacks – a multi-story car park of the deceased, a many-layed sandwich of the dead. So much for immortality. And that, of course, is the crux of the matter about death and the afterlife. It’s the memories we carry around with us of our loved ones, in our heads where they live vividly or not as the case may be. No need for actual physical reminders. It’s all in the head. So what matter that it’s burial or cremation or that your plot is desecrated for someone else.
I had these feelings again on a trip to a military cemetery in Gibraltar. What struck me forcibly there was the variation between gravestone memorials, of different constructions for different people. Officers had ornate, imposing stones and proclamations while poor Tommy got barely a mention – only single small slabs with the briefest of inscription to compete with the solid presence of people who had lorded it over him in life, now lording it over him in death. It depended on rank. You knew your place, there was no escaping that, even in death. The irony did not escape me. But then, even the humblest token of our passing is better than that given those other war dead, the anonymous ones of the Great War– what passing bells for those that die as cattle, only the monstrous anger of the guns for them.
Then again, in another place, in Palermo, Sicily. A visit to the catacombs spelt out a similar narrative. Human remains arranged in tiers, bony noses pressed to the shelf above and then again another and another – on, unceremoniously on, and up to the ceiling. The sense of suffocation was palpable. But it was not so for those who had been pillars of the community, had been rich or powerful. They were given special designs for their death and their own space. I remembered vividly one particularly well preserved corpse that sat in a carefully constructed glass case, dressed in fine clothes, though gone webbed and tattered like Miss Haversham’s in Great Expectations.
Even death does not respect that we are all human, all equal at the final reckoning – it was, as it was, when we were alive.
And I left that place with a shudder and great foreboding only to be consoled by my old friend Ozymandias, King of Kings, who implores us to look upon his works, ye mighty and despair, for nothing remains round the decay of his colossal wreck.