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CEMETERIES AND CHURCH YARDS.-A VISIT TO
BY WILLIAM MUDFORD, ESQ.
I was invited by a friend to accompany him to the cemetery at Kensal Green, in order that I might be converted, and made to give up certain notions I entertained touching the rather cockneyish sentimentalities which we now hear about pretty, ornamental, nay even beautiful, places for the dead. Death and prettiness! Mouldering bones, shrouds, and coffins, associated with the ornamental! Beauty and the grave! What ill-assorted images! What a mockery of all that is, and pretends to be real, in broken hearts! What a violation of all those tender recollections of the departed, whose well-springs are gloom, and silence, and solitude! However, as I had never seen a cemetery, never visited Père la Chaise, but had only read of its fripperies and frivolities; and as my friend's character, I knew, partook of many of the most delicate and refined sensibilities of our nature, I imagined there must be something in these fashionable collections of graves and gravestones, which gave them a decided preference over the CHURCHYARD-that word of magic power to summon thoughts that make the heart ache, fill the startled fancy with fears that carry us back to our nursery and school-days, or bring thronging into the memory a thousand thrilling scenes upon which the poet, the pain er, the novelist, has conferred the immortality of genius.
The CEMETERY-the CHURCHYARD! Pronounce the two wordswrite them-look at them. How cold, how unmeaning the one; how rich in varied recollections the other! What a spell lies in it! what deep, enduring feelings belong to it. Fancy Gray writing his Elegy in a cemetery' instead of a Country Churchyard! Fancy Shakspeare saying, 'it is now the very witching time of night, when cemeteries yawn,' &c. Fancy even a ghost taking its nocturnal airing among the trim walks and gay parterres of Kensal Green! The very fact that parties of pleasure are made to visit cemeteries, stamps their nature. Who ever heard of a party of pleasure going to promenade a churchyard? But I am anticipating myself, and letting the reader anticipate me.
Well-having put ourselves into Hieron's Cemetery Omnibus,' which starts from the Crown Inn, Edgeware Road, at ten, three, five, and nine o'clock, (ours was the five o'clock start,) we rattled along a road once pretty and picturesque, but now deformed with brick and mortar, and were set down in due course at the cemetery gates. I passed through them as I would have entered the Zoological Gardens, with my mind prepared for amusement. The exte rior has a very imposing architectural appearance, and impresses the spectator with the agreeable expectation of a charming saunter, especially on a fine summer evening like that which we had selected. You enter the grounds, and the eye is delighted with sunny slopes, flower-beds, here and there structures that look as if they were raised for ornament, and long lines of upright stones bordering the
gravel walk, which resemble, at first sight, a stone-mason's yard more than any thing else. These, as you afterwards find, are grave. stones, inscribed with every variety of monumental absurdity. Many of them notify that they (or the ground) belong to Mr. Noakes, leather-cutter, 112, High Holborn, or Mr. Woakes, pastry-cook, 44, Oxford-street. Excellent business advertisements! There seems, indeed, to be a rivalry as to who shall have the smartest grave, and out-do his neighbour in show and expense. In other parts of the grounds are monuments and mausoleums of a more costly description, but all in the vilest taste, and giving evidence of nothing except that of covering the ashes of some rich man, who left money enough behind him to buy more granite than could be afforded by the less wealthy citizen who rots a few paces off. Some of the graves were planted with flowers.
'That,' said my friend, 'awakens pleasing ideas.'
'Yes,' I replied, when placed there by the hand of affection, or preserved afterwards by the care of one whose love lies buried with the poor inhabitant below: but not when planted and attended to by the gardeners of the "Cemetery Company," at so much per quarter. It is miserable mockery then.'
Well,' continued my friend, and now what is the impression which the place has produced upon you?'
'Just what I expected; that which the GRAVE never should produce-PLEASURE, and a lightsome, cheerful spirit. I could walk here with laughing companions, and be no more affected by these em. blems of mortality, than if I were to meet a waggon-load of gravestones in the public street. It is all too garish, too artificial, too much of the vanity and pride of this world, to awaken thoughts of the next. An empty coffin in an undertaker's shop, or borne along some frequented thoroughfare, has more power to call up solemn musings upon that which awaits us all, than these rows of graves so symmetrically disposed, so clean, so neat in their appearance, that I think of any thing but the grave while looking at them. I admire the landscape; I enjoy the fanning breeze; it is pleasant to walk upon this soft greensward; those winding paths in the distance tempt one by their cool shade; the scenery altogether is charming and refreshing to the spirits; but, are these the thoughts-are these the feelings that should come over us when standing amid heaps of mouldering human dust? If you talk to me about the "public health," and how desirable it is in densely populated cities that spacious places of sepulture should be provided, away from the living, that is another question, and to be argued with reference to considerations which (as is the case with most questions that concern the common good) must set at naught private sympathies and individual predilections. But when, apart from these considerations, it is attempted to establish the superiority of cemeteries over churchyards, upon no better plea than that of their pretty, ornamental appearance, suffer me to remind you of some of the holy and sacred things you sacrifice in exchange. And, in order to do this the more effectually, let me, in imagination, conduct you to a COUNTRY CHURCHYARD, and talk of the many touching associations of mind and heart that render so dear to both the humble, modest, unobtrusive mounds of earth which meet the eye on every side.
The very time-worn porch, overshadowed by the sombre foliage
of that ancient yew-tree, is precious to the living, for there they have seen their sires, who sleep hard by, "each in his narrow cell," sitting and conversing, when they were gamboling in all the buoyarcy of frolic childhood, amid those graves that now make them sad to look upon. To their mind's eye it is still peopled with their cherished images. The door by which they enter the holy place is the same their parents passed; the pews were once their fathers'; the altar, the baptismal font, every thing in and about the church is full of the recollections of home and kindred; of the memory of wife or sister, husband or brother, child or friend; and these recollections are linked with events of their past life, round which circle joys that still bring happiness, and sorrows that have a saddened pleasure. The matron remembers the day when she stood a happy bride at the altar, and the yet happier days when she brought her newly born to receive the mystic rite that made them "children of God and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven." The husband, too, remembers that day; although when he looks upon his men-grown sons that sit around him, and reckons the years they have numbered, he almost wonders how it should appear so fresh in his thoughts; and then, glancing at the faithful partner who has passed that long course of years by his side, he sees their traces on her brow, and sighs to think how much nearer the day has come when one of them (it is a hard struggle for the heart to say which, even in imagination) must lie in the church-yard!
'But the church-yard itself-what does that contain? The ashes of none who were not known in life, who are not remembered in death. Read the names of the buried, and tell me if there be one which you cannot include in the list of friend, or neighbour, or relation? In yonder corner there are five graves side by side. Observe the head-stones; you will find each grave is tenanted by two, three, four; but all of the same family, and the whole, carrying you back through several generations; the dust of an entire race, covered by a few feet of earth! Look at that grey, mossy stone, whose long inscription is scarcely legible. Decipher it-it records a century of death's havoc ; grandsires and their children's children gathered into that little spot. In fact, turn where you will, some well-remembered name reminds you of the living; of the survivors or descendants of the buried, with whom you are hourly mingling in the busy scenes of life.
'And can you be thus reminded and remain unmoved? Can you be made to reflect that your once companions, relatives, and friends, have all yielded to our common destiny, and not at the same time involuntarily feel how your own shadow of existence in this world is flitting away? As you pass from grave to grave do not old thoughts of old friends, old affections, old kindnesses, old pleasures, come streaming into your heart? And, do not words of tenderness and love-few but expressive words-fall from your lips as you read the epitaphs of those you once knew? You sigh, and quit the place; but the sigh is as much for yourself as for the dead. It is breathed from the natural sadness of the soul at the contemplation of that change which awaits us all; a change which never comes so deeply over the spirit as when we witness its consummation, and are feel. ingly impressed with its certainty, in the already changed condition of those who have been daily before our eyes in life.
Now go to your Cemetery, with its trim walks, its gaudy flowerbeds, its flaunting shrubberies, its smart chapel, and its Sunday tea-garden appearance, and tell me which of these chords is struck there? You see yourself surrounded by a thousand-ten thousand tombstones, in every fantastic variety of form; but looking so new and nice, that you fancy they must certainly be hearth-stoned once a-week. You saunter idly and listlessly among them,-you read with an incurious eye their inscriptions. Every name is the name of a stranger,—and as a stranger you survey them. The impression is created that all who have no churchyards of their own, no spot of consecrated earth where the ashes of their kindred repose, are brought here to be buried, a sort of public refuge for the destitute dead. A mob, collected together to witness a fire or an execution, are not more disconnected from each other, then are the mob of corpses that lie rotting side by side in this huge joint-stock warehouse for coffins. You feel that if you had committed the folly of buying a grave here for a beloved wife, or parent, or child, and wished to visit it at any after-time, to hold a few moments' unob. served communion with the departed, you might as well expect to do so in Greenwich Park or Kensington Gardens; for unless you select a day whose inclemency would deter Cockney lovers of the picturesque from emigrating to the attractive scene, you will surely find yourself amid groups of pleasure hunters who have come to en joy a rural walk in the cemetery; and among the delights which you may reckon upon will be that of hearing the name, age, and other monumental particulars of the loved being at whose grave you are standing, coarsely bawled into your ears by some passer-by, who takes that opportunity of exhibiting the utility of Sunday schools.
I have nothing to say against your cemetery, my friend, on public grounds. It is a public churchyard, and the public are buried here, and the public come to look at it, and a public company sells or lets out the graves for profit, and mourners weep in public, and the whole thing may be, as I dare say it is, a public convenience; but I would not exchange one hour's pensive walk in a parish or country churchyard for a whole year's promenade in this place; still less would I exchange the holy and endearing sympathies, so closely allied with the best virtues of the human heart, the tender feeling, the affectionate homage, the pious hope, the solemn aspiration, and the moral lesson which that hour produces, for all the cold, hollow, heartless, artificial thoughts which the tinsel finery of a cemetery may call forth during the next century.'
Whether my friend was overpowered by my eloquence, or sur. prised at my want of taste, in preferring mouldy tombstones, crumbling graves, the dank yew-tree's shade, and two acres of churchyard, to the gay attractions of the place where we stood, with its fifty acres, or more, walled in and horticulturally laid out, I know not; for he merely said in reply, 'Let us visit the catacombs.' We did so.
Here, indeed, death spoke in thrilling accents to the heart; here was food for meditation; here every thought and feeling became on the instant sobered down; the merriest tongue that ever spoke from the fulness of a joy fraught mind could not have had its jest here; thoughtless laughter. that can smile at nothing, would have grown grave here. To walk through a long line of the unburied dead, raised
tier above tier on either side, reaching from the ground to the vaulted stone roof, the whole dimly visible from such light as could enter through the small apertures above, intended for ventilation, or the coffin-shaped doorway at the further end, was a scene where no worldly thoughts could come. It was almost realising the language of the Psalmist, and literally walking through the valley of the shadow of death.' I felt that if it were possible to build catacombs instead of cemeteries, and to find room upon the earth for the thousands who are hourly passing away from it, I could at once give up my favourite churchyard. There was something to my mind inexpressibly delightful in the idea of being thus able to defraud the grave, and to prevent that dreadful separation which seems to be consummated, and not before, when the earth is shovelled in as we look our last, (and know we are looking our last) even at the coffin which contains the lifeless body of the beloved one for whose departure our tears are falling fast and heavy. Who has ever lost a child, or wife, or parent, and not found consolation while their remains continued in the chamber of death and could be visited from time to time, and the rigid features gazed upon or touched, and the hand, with its marble coldness, still grasped as in life? The three most trying moments for survivors are, in my mind, when hope can be no longer kept alive, and the crushing certainty that death is at. hand takes possession of us,-when that certainty becomes fact, and our dread of what must happen has changed to grief for what has,— (oh! how different from even the wildest sorrow of apprehension merely!)—and lastly, when we stand beside the grave,-see the coffin lowered,-hear the rattling earth descend upon it, behold the heaped up mound on either side heaved in,-and then turn away, with a bursting heart, to think that never, never shall we again see even the worthless piece of wood that hides the lost treasure. This pang, at least, a catacomb saves us. There we can place the departed one, and take our sorrowing leave for a time, and return when we list, and look upon and touch the coffin, and, with scarcely any violence to the imagination, hold converse with the inanimate clod, -all that remains of the loved and beautiful in life,-of the still loved, but ah! how changed, how ghastly, and horrible now in death!
Ay, the ghastly and horrible. Who can tell how ghastly, how horrible, unless-'tis a strange fancy,' I continued; but methinks I could delight to be left here alone, with no companions but my thoughts, such thoughts as would come thick and strong upon me when it was utter darkness,--and pacing this narrow passage, all other thoughts as hushed and silent as the dead that are above, below, around,--and then, if by some necromantic power I could dissolve these coffins into thin air, and render visible each corpse within, flinging on their cadaverous hues, and rotting flesh, and funereal garments, dull, dusky flashes of unearthly light,-and if, to complete my visionary scene, I could give to mouldering lips and tongues speech, and restore to obliterated minds their once living functions, -surely, surely it were a sight for the eye to look upon, a banquet for the soul to feed on that would relish of both worlds,--this and the next, here and hereafter, life and death, present, past, and future, each revealing its own wonders.'
'Nay,' observed my friend, while you are about it, go a little farther.'