Travel: Forget the beach - try a tomb with a view
Will Diana make graveyards the next big tourist destination? Tony Kelly goes in search of famous names and poetic epitaphs
Sunday 11 January 1998
She was to have been buried in the Spencer family chapel, in the village of Great Brington in Northamptonshire, but villagers expressed concerns that her grave could become a tourist attraction. So instead she was laid to rest on a lonely island on the family estate at Althorp, well away from coach parties and prying eyes (until the coming summer, that is).
Diana is not the first public figure whose burial place has been the object of friction. There were similar concerns expressed on Iona after the death of the Labour leader John Smith in 1994. Smith was buried, controversially, in the graveyard of the Scottish kings; a year later, complaints began to surface about the number of day-trippers who were putting pressure on the landscape and polluting the atmosphere of this historically spiritual island.
Nobody wants sacred places to be crowded out with tourists. Yet a tour of Britain's cemeteries can make an interesting idea for a holiday - or at least for a series of day trips. With the help of a guidebook (see below) several pleasurable days can be spent seeking out the last resting places of the great, the good and the not-so-good. You can focus on one particular area of the country or plan a holiday around, say, the graves of famous authors.
Some people are buried just where you would expect - Shakespeare in Stratford for example, the Brontes in Haworth, and Benjamin Britten beside his friend Peter Pears in Aldeburgh, the Suffolk coastal town conjured up in his opera Peter Grimes. Thomas Hardy's heart is in Dorchester, the setting of many of his novels, though the rest of his body was cremated and placed in Westminster Abbey.
There are others whose resting-places come as a complete surprise. George Orwell wanted to be buried in an English country churchyard so his friend, David Astor, found him a place beside the Thames in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, even though he had barely set foot in the area since growing up in nearby Henley. He lies just a few feet away from Herbert Asquith, the former prime minister.
A handful of London's cemeteries are already tourist attractions. Top of the list is Highgate, with its Victorian-Gothic statuary and landscaped gardens. Karl Marx and George Eliot are buried here and there are guided tours for visitors.
Kensal Green cemetery is another popular site. This was London's first major commercial cemetery when it opened in 1833 (until then most people had been buried in churchyards) and here you can visit the graves of Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins and the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Freddie Mercury was cremated in the attached crematorium after his death in 1991.
Various monarchs, statesmen and poets are buried in Westminster Abbey, while Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and the architect Christopher Wren lie in St Paul's Cathedral. "If you seek his monument look around you," says Wren's epitaph.
Cremation has gradually replaced burial in this country, and Golders Green crematorium in north London, which opened in 1902, has become known as the artists' crematorium. It has something of a cosmopolitan feel. Enid Blyton's remains are here. Here too you will find Peter Sellers, the dancers Anna Pavlova and Marie Rambert, and the singers Marc Bolan and Keith Moon. Sigmund Freud's ashes are kept here in a Grecian urn. There is a site reserved for members of the Jewish community and the West Indian novelist Shiva Naipaul was given a Hindu cremation ceremony here.
With cremation, of course, there is no tombstone to look at, just a memorial tablet or a simple urn. Sometimes there is not even that. But what could appeal more to a Daphne du Maurier fan than a walk along the clifftop at Fowey, in Cornwall, where her ashes were scattered? And what greater memorial to Alfred Wainwright, the patron saint of fell-walkers, than to end up on his favourite mountain in the Lake District. As he said, "Should you get a bit of grit in your boots as you are crossing Haystacks, please treat it with respect. It could be me."
Perhaps the greatest pleasure of grave-hunting lies in coming across those unknown tombstones, monuments to the forgotten majority, with their wry epitaphs and insights into our social history. Visit Dodi Fayed's grave at Brookwood Cemetery in Woking and you will find him at rest with 250,000 others in Europe's largest private cemetery, built by the Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company in 1854 to ease overcrowding in London. Much of the cemetery is still open countryside, interrupted here and there by a half-hidden grave. The author Rebecca West is here, so is the social reformer Charles Bradlaugh; there are sections for British, American and even Turkish servicemen. But here too are thousands of others, each with their own story to tell.
Wander around any country churchyard and you will come across hidden gems. We've all heard of teddy bears on tombstones, but my own macabre favourite is the grave of a road accident victim at Harborne, Birmingham, where the mason has carefully carved the stone into the shape of a car tyre. And on a recent visit to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk, where the eponymous saint is indeed buried, I came across a mouldy tombstone beside the cathedral:
Reader, Pause at this Humble Stone,
It records the fall of unguarded Youth
By the allurements of vice and the
treacherous snares of Seduction.
on the 23rd of April 1800 in the 22nd Year
of her Age
Suffered a Just but ignominious Death for admitting her abandoned seducer into the Dwelling
House of her Mistress in the night of 3rd October 1799 and becoming the Instrument
in his Hands of the crimes of Robbery and
These were her last Words:
May my example be a warning to Thousands.
They don't make them like that any more.
'Who Lies Where: A guide to famous graves' by Michael Kerrigan is published by Fourth Estate (pounds 14.99
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