by Peter Stanford
I’ve been reading this book on my succession of long bus and train journeys this week (and to relax after marathon stints of thesis writing). I was given a copy this summer by my friends Helen and Roger as a thank you present for looking after their cats and chickens, but I’ve only just got round to reading it. Remind me to take a photo of the stack of cemetery books on my ‘to be read’ pile one day!
How to Read a Graveyard is a very personal look at burial practices, from ancient Rome to the war graves of the 20th century, from a small Norfolk churchyard to the famous Pere Lachaise. It’s part travel writing, part popular history, and completely enjoyable.
The book was inspired by musing about life and death while walking the family dog in the local cemetery, and its message is an essentially comforting one. It’s a book that makes you want to climb through the pages and visit all the locations – they are vividly brought to life, the visitors, sights, sounds and sensations of each graveyard. Places I’ve visited myself like Greyfriars and Pere Lachaise, felt like old friends, and I was filled with renewed determination to see others specifically, like the catacombs of Rome, and find more time to explore country churchyards in general.
It’s informative, moving and often humorous – bringing the humanity of funerary practice to the fore. Journeys in the company of the dead is only part of the story – the journeys also tell us about the wonder and brevity of life.
This book is a perfect introduction to the wonderful world of tombstones and mausoleums, but also a great reminder to researchers why we love these places. Even though the historical details given are occasionally briefer or more simplified than a rigorous researcher would consider ideal, the book generally finds a good balance between description and background information.
I heartily recommend it, but don’t take my word for it, there’s a full review from The Guardian. Their writer had presumably spent less of the day trying to write a PhD thesis on a series of overcrowded trains…and they enjoyed it too for the most part. Read it here.
For further information about book, the author or to purchase a copy, check the publishers website (the hardback is currently on offer at £15.29 and paperback £9.99).
Now, I should get back to that thesis chapter and stop day dreaming about returning to Pere Lachaise. Wish me luck?
NB: I am not sponsored or remunerated in any way for reviews unless otherwise stated.