What do you normally expect when you go to stay with your retired parents? I know what I don’t expect … to be marching down to the local church with a pitchfork in my hand on a bright, sunny morning. But there I was, enlisted to help clear the grass and weeds from around the crypts and headstones in the village cemetery.
The crypt you can see in the photo above is apparently typical of Welsh crypts: once full, it was bricked up and then had earth piled up around it. The headstones and tombstones can of course still be seen, but most of the crypt is buried underground. Cleaning the soil and moss from the top of the crypt was the first task I was given to help clean up the churchyard.
It is the final resting place of the family who built the castle that overlooks the valley. The crypt is crumbling slightly, but still dominates the graveyard, with its elaborate headstones and ornaments. As I scraped away the lush layer of soil and weeds that had been piling up on the slate, and disturbing hundreds of worms, centipedes and woodlice in the process, it stuck me as strange that humankind should insist on dominating its territory in death as well as in life.
In Japan, there is a custom to return to one’s hometown in the spring, in order to tend to the graves of one’s ancestors. Not many of the descendants of those interred in this cemetery remain in the local area, most having left for economic reasons in the last few decades, I imagine. Their empty cottages have become holiday homes or retirement homes for middle-class Midlanders like my parents, and their ancestors lie forgotten. A few of the graves are still decorated with fresh flowers from time to time, but most are left to become overgrown, so much so that after two hours of mowing and raking, the team of volunteers managed to rescue only the first two rows of headstones from the grass and thistles.
The lasting idea that I took from my morning of guerrilla gardening amid the graves was how inevitable it is that people should be forgotten, and that life should go on regardless. I thought of the plants and the worms that might find nourishment in the consecrated soil, and of the other beasts and fowl that feed on those plants and invertebrates. From my heathen point of view, graveyards are for the living, not for the dead. Interring one’s late loved ones is important for the survivor, not the deceased. The grieving process can be helped by having a place in which to remember someone. But once there is no one left to remember, perhaps it’s fitting that places should be forgotten, and the ground left to be reclaimed by nature?
I’m not really sure. On the other hand, I was moved by the hints of human history I – literally – stumbled upon. I slipped on the miniature tombstone below, which had been entirely concealed under moss and grass …
This turned out to be the final resting place of Anne, daughter of Humphrey and Hannah Harries, who died aged 2 years and 8 months on 31st March, 1865. At least, I think that’s what the headstone says …