So far this lockdown, my family and I are spending a lot of time in the cemetery. Thankfully, for the moment at least, this is not a euphemism. Denied our usual opportunities to run around in parks and fields, thanks to social distancing, we troop religiously, twice a day, up our residential street in West Oxford to a disused graveyard that adjoins the railway line.
It is here that we take our government-sanctioned exercise, as we cautiously sidle away from friendly dog owners and incongruous sunbathers, even as we nod our tentative hellos. The odd ethereal type wanders by, and for a minute, I have to work out whether they are actually ghosts, or simply possess that distinctive Oxford pallor that comes from spending their lives in libraries, bookshops and pubs.
There is a certain kind of ghoulish enjoyment in trying to assess the characters of those buried in the cemetery from the inscriptions on their gravestones. Were the “much-loved” husbands really adored, or were they bullies and cowards? Did “my beloved wife” really “bring joy to my heart”, or did a relieved widower chuckle bleakly to himself as he paid the stonemason a few extra shillings to inscribe some private joke, now long lost in time?
And you appreciate the democracy of death, here and forever, as well. The Christ Church Regius Professor of Divinity is buried next to the man who was his housekeeper. Cheek by cheek, bone by bone, they will lie together for as long as the graveyard exists.
Every day, I wander around the cemetery, occasionally breaking into a light canter if my daughter insists that I pretend to be a wolf and chase her. On days of glorious sunshine, it is an almost exhilarating experience, but there is always something faintly sad about a graveyard with no church attached. I miss the opportunity to wander round the pews, to look up at the ceiling and to gaze at the altar, but these particular pleasures are denied to me, just as they are denied to everyone, everywhere at the moment.
Yet, for a writer and historian, the cemetery offers other distractions. There is the heart-breaking poignancy of family graves, where it soon becomes clear that the parents were predeceased by all of their children, and the quieter sadness of the tombstones of husbands and wives, where the disparity between the dates of death suggests a long, lonely widowhood. And then, of course, there are the soldiers.
For a graveyard that has no particular association with the armed forces, there are an unusually large number of military men buried within its walls. There are a few veterans of conflicts such as the Boer War, but the vast majority were young men who died during the First World War. The inscriptions on their neat, white gravestones are generally simple and plain, presumably decided upon by a grieving parent or a commanding officer. “Edward Smith, Private First Class. Aged 32.” Taken individually, they represent a single tragedy. Taken as a whole, the sense of a generation taken too young becomes cumulatively devastating.
Every time I see the graves, I feel as if a new part of a story has been revealed – or concealed further. If two young men with the same surname lie near to one another, were they brothers? And, if so, why were they not buried together? Was there a family quarrel? Or a hope that one would survive? And why did so many of them die in 1919? Was it because of lingering wounds, or were they claimed by Spanish flu?
I will never know, in all likelihood. Yet it is not just the soldiers who died in 1919. There are dozens of memorials bearing the same date, and together they represent a grim reminder of what happened just over a century ago, when the last global pandemic came.
Whenever a government minister talks about the coronavirus, the language they use is often militaristic. At a time when few of us will ever know the horrors of first-hand combat, it is oddly nostalgic. We are “at war” against the virus, but we are going to “win”. Those who are “battling” on the “front line” are “heroes”. It offers some immediate reassurance to those who hear it, but this is not the first time in the last few years that talk of battle has been used, and a visit up the road reminds me how flat and inappropriate the words so often are.
As I stand in the cemetery, it is usually very quiet. The sounds of a small city in life are eerily absent, and instead I can hear Great Tom, the bell of Tom Tower at Christ Church, tolling the hour. Once, I would have taken great pleasure from hearing its sonorous refrain. Yet now, with the silence symbolising other, darker things, I am reminded of John Donne’s famous lines: “Every man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.”
It is these words, both grim and beautiful, that run through my mind as I leave the graveyard every day, taking care not to touch the gates on the way out. After all, I don’t know who else might have been there before us.