Our burial grounds lack dignity

Cemeteries should be places of serenity, not bad taste

By John Nathan, November 13, 2008

I am a snob. But I am the best kind of snob. I may wince at the pebble-dash on your house or the faux Doric columns on either side of your fake Tudor front door; and I may sniff at the chocolate-box art on your walls - that fading Renoir print in your hall or the kitsch souvenir relief of a happy Chasid on the landing. But I won't make a judgment about the content of your character based on the content of your house. Or worse, how big it is. Not like Arthur Miller's dying salesman, who reckons that people who are rich enough to have their own tennis court "must be fine people". Because that is the worst kind of snob.

It is not just the bad taste. It's the pretence I cannot stand. I want to know why anyone would want to make their suburban brick house look like it had been hewn from the desert rock by cladding it in stone. Do they pretend that they live on a ranch in New Mexico as opposed to a semi in New Malden?

Similar stuck-up thoughts flitted through my mind the other day as I stood at the pond in the United Synagogue's sprawling, flagship cemetery at Bushey.

Unlike Willesden's venerable burial ground, resting place of Anglo-Jewish grandees, its decaying Victoriana squeezed by a growing cityscape, Bushey is an isolated, vast car park of a graveyard - and not much of a place for the living. Nothing grows between the headstones. The clay ground is stony and sterile. And because the place opened for business as recently as 1947, the memorials are all relatively new, so no sense of history either.

Not like East London's Marlow Road, which in my meditative mood I visited the other day and discovered that, not far from the cemetery's first grave, which belongs to "Able Seaman Jacob Emanuel", who died on January 6 1919 at the age of just 25, is that of Aaron Kosminsky, who was suspected of being Jack the Ripper. Leaning against his eroding headstone a visitor has placed a framed embroidered message. It says "Dear Aaron, I know you're innocent. Sleep peacefully". It is signed "A Gentile Admirer".

Back at banal Bushey, the stone-setting ceremony for a friend's father had just finished and I was all for leaving as soon as possible. But my father is also buried here. He was a fine writer and an occasional amateur poet, and his attitude to some of the rituals surrounding death is laid out in a poem he wrote for his family. It contains the verse:

No yearly graveside visit do I claim;
Bone, dust or ash, it's all the bloody same,
Remember in your hearts for, if not there,
You will not find me anywhere.

Still, it seemed wrong to just leave. So, as the sun beat down from a clear, autumn sky, and accompanied by the drone of small aircraft taking off from the nearby airfield, I stood at my father's grave and indulged in a few reflective thoughts. They seemed profound at the time but in retrospect amounted to nothing more than, "Dad is dead. One day I will be dead, too." And then I added a pebble to those left by my mother who twice a year defies the sentiment of the poem she loves. And then I left.

And it was while meandering my way back through the cemetery's grid system towards the exit that I became aware that something was bothering me about some of the other headstones. Only I could not quite put my finger on it. I became distracted by the sound of running water. It led me to the pond. Goldfish were just visible through the murky shallows. From a plastic water tank sitting at the edge, a dribbling pipe attempted to simulate a waterfall. Chicken wire covered the pond's surface, presumably to keep the suffocating fish safe from hungry birds. Or maybe foxes. The highlight of this bucolic scene of tranquillity was a plastic heron, its single leg driven through the chicken wire into the pond bed.

It must scare the hell out of the fish. But why does the United Synagogue even bother? Whose spirit do its leaders think they have raised with such a depressing scene? It's the pretence I cannot stand.

On my way out, I passed more headstones. Then it hit me. Some of them are huge. It's the biggest ones that bother me. They surely undermine a beautiful Jewish tradition - of burying our dead modestly, acknowledging that in death we are all equal.

Of course, London's biggest, most dominating Jewish grave lies a few miles south of Bushey, in Highgate Cemetery. But Karl Marx's tomb is there for tourists rather than mourners. Interestingly enough, Marx has quite a few Jewish neighbours in death spread throughout Highgate's non-denominational earth. As it happens, too, Highgate is a cemetery where the atmosphere is conducive to the basic Jewish requirements for burial: modesty, dignity and honesty. Even with the tourists, it is generally peaceful and verdant. No ostentation, no pretence - and no plastic herons.

I remember one other towering Jewish memorial (not in Bushey) that looks like it has risen volcano-like out of the ground. It looms over every grave in the vicinity. Of the people who put it there, Arthur Miller's Willy Loman would have said: "They must be fine people." But the dialogue, as the mourner leafed through the memorial stonemason's catalogue, was probably not quite of Miller's standard:

Mourner: I want something big.

Stonemason: Perhaps I can interest Sir in our Mount Sinai range.

Mourner: How much for the Everest?

Last updated: 11:23am, November 13 2008



Wed, 11/26/2008 - 17:24

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Do Anglo-Jewry a favour and visit some of the Adass cemeteries, such as Cheshunt. Although families pay an annual fee to have stones cleaned they always look filthy. Not to spoil the surprise, I won't say anything else!