Grave Digging

It’s an eternal question, isn’t it? “Where do you get your ideas?” Sometimes the word “ideas” is replaced by “inspiration,” which really has a completely different meaning, but they’re usually used interchangeably anyway. “Ideas” has a good solid feel to it, like you’re Newton sitting under an apple tree in autumn. “Inspiration,” on the other hand, implies something more otherworldly. You know, like there you are, minding your own business, watching something worthless on the TV, when the screen turns misty and reality itself seems in flux, as the gods of storytelling descend on a cloud of ancient typewriters, inkwells and parchment and whisper in your ear, “You might try something about vampires, you know.” And then vanish before you can mention that they seem to be a bit out of touch and the living dead have been kind of done to…er…death.

Actually, that makes the Gods of Storytelling sound a bit useless and rather like the Gnat in Through the Looking Glass, but you get my drift.

Ideas/inspiration have never really worked that way for me. It’s always more of a slow accretion of information—all the various things that interest me slowly coming together into that wonderful moment of “what if…”

So, having said that, I thought I’d focus on some of the things that I have always found interesting, the things that feed my imagination and endlessly fascinate me.

Starting with graveyards.

Dickens used to wander around graveyards with a notebook, writing down all the most wonderful names he could find. We now think of names like Gradgrind, Squeers and Gamp as quintessentially Dickensian, but he found most of them on forgotten stones in London cemeteries.

I love graveyards too. Good ones. Not the kind where the memorials are just little plaques set into the grass so that they won’t interfere with the lawn mowers, but the old-fashioned kind. The kind that have stonking great monuments with screeds about the deceased, their achievements (or otherwise) and their families.

It all began on a summer holiday in Scotland when I was about 10 or 11. We were staying in a cottage owned by a great Aunt in a tiny village near Peebles. There wasn’t much to do, but there was a wonderful old graveyard, sadly neglected, with many of the huge stones toppled and face down in the grass. My sister and I read with fascination of generations of villagers and started hunting for the oldest one. I think the furthest we got back was around 1650 or so, and by that point we had started turning over the toppled stones, unable to believe that someone had found the destruction more interesting than the stones themselves.

Of course, you don’t have to go to the UK to find great graveyards. The California Gold Country is positively riddled with them. Most tell the same sad tale—young men in their late teens or early twenties from all over the world who came to California to make their fortunes but found only drudgery, heat, disease and death.

Then there’s the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. This one is a corker. It’s right behind Paramount Studios. You can see the studio water tower from the graveyard. Everyone is here, from the great (Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks, Valentino) to the unknown and all variations in between. One of my favorites is in the shape of NASA’s Atlas rocket, on one side the man’s epitaph reads, “Retired by God.” On the other is his wife with the words, “Too bad…we had fun.” You could be forgiven for thinking that the deceased had something to do with designing the rocket, but you’d be wrong – he was a graphic designer. Apparently he just really liked the rocket. The tombstone always makes me smile. You really can’t help but love people who go out with a quip on their lips.

Of course, not all tombstone tales are amusing. In a distant corner of Hollywood Forever there is a simple plaque set into the earth. It’s the grave of Florence Lawrence, the first movie star. She began her career as an anonymous face, “The Biograph Girl,” but in 1910 became the first star known by name when Carl Laemmle stole her away. She made over 270 films in a career cut short in 1915 when an accidental fire damaged her face. She continued to act in ever smaller roles and by the time she died in 1938 she was forgotten and destitute – buried in an unmarked grave. The current plaque was donated by actor Roddy McDowell in 1991.

And there she lies, under weeds and scrubby grass in the shadow of Paramount Studios, far from the ostentatious graves of the great, the good and the gaudy, the very first Hollywood star.

Graveyard - Cartmel PrioryStill, at least she had some fun. The countless graves in older cemeteries tell grimmer tales of tragic deaths and lives cut short. Family gravestones with long lists of children dead from disease or malnutrition before they even reached their first birthday. Such catalogs of catastrophe all too often culminate in the death of the long-suffering mother along with her last newborn child. In England such graves often feature a skull and cross-bones and an hour-glass lying on its side for a life cut short. Other graves of older people have winged hour-glasses – time literally flying. At Cartmel Priory, an 800 year-old church in Cumbria, there is a gravestone inside the church that tells one of the saddest tales I’ve seen.

The first inscription is for 24 year-old Roben Harrison who drowned on Lancaster Sands on January 13, 1782 when he was 24. (The quick sands off the coast of north Lancashire and Cumbria are treacherous to this day.) Below the description of his death is a rhyme:

The waters they do compass me
And no assistance I can see
Which makes one to lament and cry
Lord send me help least here I die
It is in vain for to withstand
what is decreed by Gods command
My dying day I cannot shun
Fairwell dear friends my glass is run

The following year another inscription was added: “Also here lies Margaret Harrison who was drowned January …st 1783 near the same place where her son was drowned.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Roben’s mother probably didn’t die by accident, yet in an age when suicides were routinely buried at crossroads (often with stakes through their hearts), she was given a proper church funeral and a burial inside the church. Was the community of Cartmel particularly tolerant? Or had they perhaps watched a loving mother slowly unravel over the course of a year, unable to cope with the loss of her beloved son, and leaving behind a husband and father grieving for the second time in a year. Villages are always tightly knit and perhaps for these villagers it was kinder to pretend that both deaths had been accidents.

The whole story is like something out of Hardy. It has a tragic, gothic quality—set in a beautiful village near a coast of shifting sands and deadly storms with ordinary people pushed to breaking point by events over which they have no control, and the best that those left behind can do is to offer a descent burial and the chance of reunion in the next life.

If there is a next life…but that’s a whole other story.

Helen Stringer is a novelist and TV addict living in Los Angeles. Her new novel Spellbinder is now available from Feiwel & Friends.


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