Most are found on the Celtic fringes, such as Maes Howe in Orkney and Porth Hellick on the Scilly Isle of St Mary's, but perhaps the best preserved is that of Belas Knap, built up on a ridge overlooking the Cotswold town of Winchcombe. Except for true enthusiasts - or those with the most vivid of imaginations - these ancient burial sites do not offer the casual tourist a great deal, however. If you want to be dazzled by the trappings of death, you'd do better to plan a trip to the British Museum in London.
Among the various collections on display here are Egyptian mummies (not only those of humans but also of cats and crocodiles, a reminder that today's pet cemeteries are not just a modern idea), ancient Greek mausoleums and, most striking of all, the somewhat creased remains of Lindow Man. Discovered in a peat bog in Cheshire in 1984, he was believed to have met his death in a sacrificial Druid ritual 2,000 years ago. The archaeologists who found the body (and pored over the contents of his stomach to establish the constituents of his last meal) knew him, aptly, as Pete Marsh.
If the idea of meeting an ancient Britain is difficult to swallow, first ease yourself into the idea with a peek at the Sutton Hoo treasure, the richest hoard of funerary art yet discovered in Britain and one which is also safely tucked away in the British Museum. The site of this extravagant Anglo-Saxon ship burial was unearthed in 1939, close to the Suffolk town of Woodbridge. The artefacts on display in the museum are jewelled swords, silver bowls and gilded helmets that were buried in the seventh-century ship along with Redwald, one-time king of East Anglia. The National Trust recently acquired the burial site and has plans to develop it for the public; in the meantime, there are guided tours at weekends in the summer.
For funerary treasures from further afield, head west to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. This Victorian treasure is closed for restoration until January, but when it re-opens expect to find something like a highbrow, anthropological car-boot sale, with thousands of objects crammed into glass cases, all neatly labelled by hand. Among the items brought back by colonial explorers are shrunken (human) heads from Ecuador. If death starts to lose its attraction, there are all manner of other exhibits - from antique textiles to strange instruments and even a totem pole - to keep your interest alive.
Cemeteries, however, are perennial tourist attractions. From the Hebridean island of Iona - the site of the oldest Christian cemetery in Scotland, whose inhabitants are said to include St Columba and Macbeth (and definitely do include the late Labour leader, John Smith) - to London and its Victorian cemeteries (built to ease overcrowding in churchyards) there is something utterly compelling about headstones and the inscriptions on them, and even the graveyards themselves.
Top of most people's list is Highgate Cemetery in London, whose most celebrated resident is Karl Marx. However, at times this can feel like a funereal theme park. A pleasanter alternative, in spring and summer at least, is Kensal Green, London's first great cemetery and one which has peaceful corners, fine Gothic statuary and a fascinating collection of characters honouring its graves. The authors Anthony Trollope and Wilkie Collins are buried here, as are engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Babbage, inventor of the computer. Here too lies the doctor who delivered Queen Victoria's children; Viscount Strangford, the last person to fight a duel in England; WH Smith, whose mother founded the shop which bears his name; and Emile Blondin, the tightrope walker, who crossed Niagara Falls blindfold and on stilts. Most poignantly, here too, tucked away in a leafy corner, is Marigold Churchill, the daughter of Winston and Clementine, who died of meningitis at the age of two and a half. The death left her father devastated: apparently the future Prime Minister would visit the cemetery and sit on a bench opposite the tiny grave, silently mourning his lost child.
However, the curious appeal of churchyards is not limited to the famous or to the celebrated. The record that such places leave of the quirks and sadnesses of everyday life can be seen throughtout the country. Poke around Britain's country churchyards, with their leaning headstones and overgrown tombs, and you come across revealing glimpses of another age.
On wanderings around my home region of East Anglia, I discovered the children who burnt to death in a barn while watching a magician's show; the champion jockey who shot himself after his wife died in childbirth; and the young servant who suffered a just but ignominious death for admitting her seducer into the house of her mistress.
Epitaphs, too, reveal changing attitudes. At Chesterton near Cambridge, a burial stone pays tribute to a four-year-old child, Anna Maria Vassa, "daughter of Gustavus Vassa, the African". It continues:
Should simple village rhymes
attract thine eye,
Stranger, as thoughtfully thou
Know that there lies beside this
A child of colour haply not thine
Cremation, of course, means that future generations may not have such a record to look back on; these days, death does not always leave a permanent reminder. But what better way to remember Alfred Wainwright, the chronicler of the Lake Dis- trict, than to walk across his favourite mountain, where his ashes are scattered. As he requested: "Should you get a bit of grit in your boots as you are crossing Haystacks, please treat it with respect. It could be me."
The British Museum is at Great Russell Street, London WC 1 (0171-636 1555). It is open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm and Sun 12noon-6pm; admission is free. Sutton Hoo is off the B1083 Woodbridge to Bawdsey road; the National Trust exhibition is scheduled to open in spring 2002. Guided tours take place at 2pm and 3pm on Saturdays and Sundays from Easter to October. Call 01263 733471 for more information. The Pitt Rivers Museum is at Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 (01865 270927) and will reopen in January 2000. Kensal Green Cemetery is at Harrow Rd, London W10 and is open 9am-5pm daily (admission is free but there are guided tours on Sundays at 2pm). `Who Lies Where: a guide to famous graves" by Michael Kerrigan is published by Fourth Estate (pounds 14.99).Reuse content