The gangster and the cherub

Spirit of the Age
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A COUPLE of years ago, the caretaker was about to close the gates at Beckett Street Cemetery in Leeds when an unsavoury-looking character leapt from his black Mercedes. "I'm the local gangster," he announced (or words to that effect). "What's all this about a missing cherub?"

The cherub under discussion had stood atop a gravestone commemorating the death of Lowena Ethel, daughter of one James Harrison, who was reputed to have thrown all his money in her grave at her funeral in 1892, declaring that he now had no use for it any more - though he evidently kept back enough to pay for the expensive cherub carved from high-class marble.

Respect for such extravagant grief has diminished with the years since those Victorian high-days. One hundred years later, some delinquent had sawn off the marble effigy in the hope of flogging it to someone who fancied a bit of statuary among their shrubbery. But such was the outraged outcry in the days that followed among the friends of Beckett Street that the local gangster materialised to investigate the offence which was giving his profession a bad name. But more of that later.

"Show me how you have lived," Kierkegaard once said, "and I'll tell you what you believed." You can make a similar equation with the way we die. Far from being a fine and private place, the Victorian cemetery was an embodiment of the notion that in the midst of life we are in death. It provides an instructive comparison with the attitude of our own times.

To explore the contrast, I went round the cemetery - which yesterday unveiled a blue plaque proclaiming it the first municipal cemetery in the country - in the company of its historian, Sylvia Barnard, an undertaker of 20 years standing, David Kaye, and the Church of England's top man on death and its rituals, The Revd Douglas Davies, professor of theology at Durham University.

Though there are even today a few interments in family graves, Beckett Street's heyday was the 1880s and the place is overgrown now with a profusion of brambles and the wispy-seeded rosebay willowherb obscuring the old tombstones. Still, Mrs Barnard guided us through the tangle, all the while pushing a bike with a basket which looked as though she might have had it at Oxford 30 years ago.

As she pushed, she talked at the speed of an ISDN down-load, discharging vast quantities of information on the tombs of soot merchants, soldiers and steeplejacks. She showed us classical pillars and urns, gothic shields and spires, and Celtic crosses. There were the unmarked pits containing 1,100 cholera victims, the "guinea graves" in which the poor had their names recorded, on payment of a pound and a shilling, on a collective headstone, and there were the individual monuments of the solid bourgeoisie, including one child with the unlikely name of Vieuxtemps Haddock.

The stones were - unlike the bald epitaphs in a contemporary burial ground - brimming with information. They recorded in death the virtues which the Victorian age esteemed in life - probity, faithfulness, devotion to duty and public-spiritedness. Several boasted of their occupants having been teetotallers, though the fact did not seem to have done them any good in the end. "It's like someone today putting that `she was a life- long vegan' on the headstone," observed Professor Davies with a raised eyebrow.

Other monumental inscriptions served as mechanisms of retribution, with the bereaved pointing the finger at negligent pit-owners or, in the case of 12-year-old Fred Smith, who was killed by an airliner at a show in 1933, at the plane's owner, Sir Alan Cobham, and the pilot of the plane, one Flt. Lieut. Johnson. There were also admonitions of mortality to the Victorian public. "When you come my grave to see," said a typical one, "prepare yourselves to follow me."

Our values have changed in almost all these areas, insisted Sylvia Barnard: "Death is not talked about in public. We sweep it under the carpet in the same way that we shunt the old off to rest homes and hospices to die."

It is a change which has been most marked in more recent years, according to David Kaye who, after 20 years as an undertaker, is now editor of The Funeral Service Journal. "When I began in the mid-Sixties, the idea was to give the deceased a good send-off. Funerals had a hearse and as many as six following cars; today, a hearse-and-one is the norm. The amount of time people take off work has gone down; before it was days, now they want the whole thing over in a morning."

The conventional explanation for all this is the contemporary fall-off in religious belief. But this is not as pronounced as is generally supposed. David Kaye agrees. "In the old days people went to church out of sense of duty or for social reasons," he said, "but they didn't believe any more than they do today."

Our theologian had a more secular explanation. Professor Davies insists that it is not a spiritual matter so much as a medical one. "It's all tied up with fear," he said as we stopped before a stone which recorded the death of four brothers and sisters who had all died from scarlet fever within a period of just six weeks. "So many people died in infancy then that people were more acquainted with death. Nowadays, with better health care, there are far fewer occasions for the fear of death to be removed."

Fewer, except perhaps in the world of organised crime. Which might be why, the day after that visit from Beckett Street's local gangster, the missing cherub was miraculously restored to its empty plinth. Who says that higher values have withered in contemporary life?