Bloomsbury, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

How to Read a Graveyard, By Peter Stanford

Poetic and humane, this tour of resting-places turns the mind to last things, and to first principles.

Socrates said it was foolish to fear death. How, he asked, can you be afraid of something that you know nothing about? The power of imagination has come a long way since 400BC. Can even sceptical non-Catholics read James Joyce's excruciating description of the realms of hell in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man without feeling, if only for a moment, that it might be terrifyingly true?

At the very least, we must wonder about the ton of earth that will be tamped down above our coffins, or the 90 minutes of flames at 900C required to reduce us to about 5lbs of cremulated fragments. Peter Stanford's How to Read a Graveyard is a humane, delicately religious attempt to celebrate the one fate we will all share, but probably think and talk the least about.

Walking around cemeteries "is rather like rummaging among the old socks that lie buried in frayed pillowcases. It sets us remembering, reflecting, and puzzling." Stanford visits ten graveyards – mostly famous, some quietly surprising – and gives us a stream of historical facts, detailed observations, conversations and speculations. This is a gentle, timely polemic against the marginalisation of graveyards as a symbol of our sense of existence, memory and the passage of time.

Stanford quotes James Stevens Curl, author of Death and Architecture, who suggests that in modern societies burials have become "suggestive of emotional amnesia." What do we think when confronted by the tombs in the via Appia Antica outside Rome? That they are sacred? Or just heritage stuff worth photographing, rather than thinking about in terms of our relationship with death?

Stanford examines an interesting range of burial places – High Church, Victorian commercial, culturally iconic, and what might be described as alt-organic at the Chiltern Woodland Burial Park. We follow him through the excavations beneath St Peter's basilica in Rome where the saint's bones are said to lie; we duck down into the chill of the catacomb of St Callixtus; we flinch, perhaps, at his slightly over-dramatic portrayal of Greyfriars' Kirkyard in Edinburgh, where Burke and Hare robbed graves; we "do" Jim Morrison's grave at Père Lachaise in Paris.

But it's not Stanford's assiduous fact-finding that resonates. It's those moments when he conveys impressions of graveyards that strike home with a poetic and humane weight. In his chapter on the cemeteries of the Commonwealth War Graves in France, which skilfully balances history and metaphysics, there's a fine passage on the small resting place for the Chinese and Indian coolies who died in the First World War: "Anyone who doubts the power of landscape will find here, where the public and private intertwine, proof of its ability to console."

How are we to reconcile this well cared-for sanctuary with the fact that almost every day, in London, at least one child of poor parents is deposited in an open-pit grave that already contains small bodies? This is a literal return to the medieval mass burial of commoners.

Stanford's book reminded me of a visit to the tent-shaped concrete mausoleum of the Victorian explorer, Sir Richard Burton, in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalene's Church in Mortlake, London. Near it is the burial plot of Charles Aloysius Barnewall, 19th Baron Lord Trimlestown, who died in 1990.

Hanging from a skimpy chain around the cross was a small white plastic plaque, like those you see in the windows of old-fashioned shops, announcing "Open" or "Closed". In black lettering: "Nick Barnewall, Dealer in Twentieth Century Objects 26.10.51 – 30.5.91".

Cryptic, plasticised words and an extraordinary little mausoleum, almost side by side: two very different expressions of death and memory that together, on that wet winter's day, breathed vivid life into an unremarkable London churchyard. If that image resonates in your mind, as it still does in mine, you'll find How to Read a Graveyard dead marvellous.



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss