While wandering through this urban Valley of Bones I was reminded that it remains “a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead” — especially during November, when prayers for the faithful departed recall that we are bound to the holy souls and are as much in need of their prayers as they are of ours. To many Londoners the city’s cemeteries are but convenient shortcuts from one busy thoroughfare to another. And yet it is impossible en route not to pause, if only for a moment; and, after so doing, to look upon the inscriptions on the headstones and monuments all around. The names, the dates, the brief tags and phrases carved in stone tell of people’s lives: of a beloved husband, a much-missed daughter, an infant who died soon after birth.
And yet most inscriptions record little more than the date on which the one remembered entered this world and their date of passing from it; even these are now often obscured by lichen or worn away by wind and rain. In St. Mary’s Cemetery, the graves of the wealthy are clearly visible. They are evidenced by monuments that now hold only dust; a closer examination of such edifices reveal many are in a state of disrepair: neglected, crumbling before our eyes. The wealth that bought these tombs has not sustained them. All withers and fades here. The great and the good of yesterday are no more remembered today than the infants whose gravestones record but a few days of life. As the Book of Job reminds us: We are born naked and leave this world equally so.
St. Mary’s is one of London’s oldest post-Reformation Catholic cemeteries, consecrated in 1858. There are approximately 172,000 Catholics buried there. Among them are famous poets like Francis Thompson, writers like Sax Rohmer — the creator of Fu Manchu — spies and decorated war heroes, Bonaparte princes and the city’s common poor. Yet here we encounter a democracy of the dead. They are buried in indiscriminate ranks from different stations in life: Few, if any, who lie beside us will we have known in this earthly sojourn. This is the universal brotherhood of the dead. These meditations may be sobering thoughts, but with them, paradoxically, comes a definitive sense of connectedness, a sense that there really are only Four Last Things — a sense that so often eludes us when laughter is heard all around and the summer sun warms our faces.
Walking among these Catholic dead and their monuments, there is a noticeable tranquility. Here, there is a sense of ending, a resting, a finality; for those lying in this place, there is nowhere further to go, nothing further to do; and yet, as the Catholic Church teaches, we know there is another destiny that awaits this dust that once was living flesh in the final resurrection of the dead. But in the meantime, the bodies of the departed await what is to come. Perhaps this is why some people find graveyards disturbing. These places mock wealth and rank; earthly hopes, too. They show our mundane plans to be all too temporary. The faces of the stone angels look toward us in disbelief, noting, it seems, the baubles with which we, the living but mortal, preoccupy ourselves, whilst the only real “currency” with which we can “buy” eternity is so often frittered away.
It is good to walk through a cemetery. The experience will offer an antidote to much that ails us. Walking past the graves, it is true that one senses time in a way often impossible elsewhere in this busy city. For that reason alone, to such silent quarters it is beneficial to return from time to time. It is best to do so when it is quiet, on a weekday, and, at this time of year, at twilight, if possible. Then, when staring at a grave, we recognize that the escapism on offer all around us rarely constitutes an escape, for time is marching on — to its inevitable conclusion.
For we Catholics, the grave is never the end of the story, though. We believe in a God who escaped the tomb, rose from it, transcended death and is proclaimed the Author of Life. Looking across the many graves in St. Mary’s, one can seem to catch a glimpse, if only for a moment, of what it will be like on that much-anticipated Great Day. Then those who lie in dust, whether encased in a grand tomb or in a humble unmarked grave, shall all hear the same trumpet blast and its summons to gather.
Passing out through the cemetery gates, watched by the angels and in the shadows of the crosses, all now silhouetted against the darkening evening sky, it was clear that cemeteries such as this one are no dismal relics of former glory, no sad tributes to what once was, but, rather, monuments to the eternal future, to the glory yet to come.
K.V. Turley is the Register’s U.K. correspondent.