by Jacob Wingate-Bishop
Author’s Prelude: I took a walk around Brookwood Cemetery (Surrey, UK) about a week back, and found the experience – both the place, and its atmosphere – beautiful. I thought I would write something a bit different, and try to put into words that spiritual visit.
I walk through these untroubled graves, where ground judders and shudders across uneven earth. I hear the silence, deafening, then a bird’s call. Not song, they wouldn’t dare encroach on this resting place. A solitary caw, the flutter of wings, and silence once more. The trees reach out, gnarl-limbed, moss-knotted, desperate for departed company. The leaves have fallen by now, mulch underfoot, leaving strong, lone skeletons that stride amongst the rows.
Plinths of stone and podiums of marble sprawl from around me. Upon them are the names of the dead, of lost souls – some of whom, I ponder, may still wail on the banks of the river Styx. Some of these graves are rotting with death. Some are empty. Their owners will never be found, their homes are vacant. Bodies washed up on a forgotten shore somewhere, six feet deep, knocking on the gates of whatever lies beyond.
The bell tolls. A single, piercing knell that shatters the quiet, and instils a delicate kind of dread. It is a thin weave, and it splinters through the air, carving up gravestones and crypts, memorials and mausoleums. Suddenly, the plaques and the poems, etched across dead places, are more alive now. The words make sense, hold such strength. I read the name on another tombstone. Another I shall forget. But another who clung onto life once, who lived for countless years, who held close a husband, a wife, children, dogs, homes, a neighbour, forgotten sweethearts and abandoned dreams.
Now they linger like shades, hovering somewhere between shore and bank. I can feel their spirits in the air. It’s heavy here, thick, but comforting. I feel no evil, no malign entity lurking in wait. A squirrel scurries across a boot-trodden path. The wind howls with sorrow. But nothing dark lingers here. It is a quiet place, a tranquil place. I feel strangely at ease, surrounded by all this death. It is symbiotic, I think – we live among them, and they linger with us. It is an unwritten code. A contract of sorts. And it shall stand for another hundred years.
A flag blows wilfully in the wind. Those stars and stripes, emblazoned like sky and blood, seem hollow now. What are anthems and flags and colours and borders? Death comes for us all. We all march in time to that drum. I look to my left and see an American war hero. My right, a South African. Half an hour later, and I am surrounded by a Turkish air unit. All creeds and colours rest here, all reap solitude evermore.
There is no one else here. It’s quiet. A little cold. The clouds blow sable overhead and the wind picks up a touch. But there is no one else here. I have Brookwood to myself. As one of the living, am I lord here? I pass another map, another list of dead, another mausoleum. I can see the bars on the doors and the marble at its feet. I ponder how long it has stood here, and for how long it will last. It doesn’t matter. The soul for which it was made will sleep, no matter what king or commoner casts its shadow upon them.
I am strangely at peace here, and I should like to come back again. Not for some poem, some ballad or eloquent prose. I am not Keats, and I seek no ode to a nightingale within these gates. I simply find serenity, away from all, from pressures and deadlines and judgments. I seek the stillness in the water. Ironic, then, that comfort waits for me amongst the dead. Perhaps, if we all stalked such dreadgrounds, the collective fog from our minds would begin to lift. The miasmas would dance and shiver like splendid conflagrations, disappearing with time. Our malaise might end, and we could live once more.
To the tenders of this Necropolis, I bow. To the keepers, I applaud. To its people, I shall mourn.