The suburban way of death

To Mortlake Cemetery for the funeral of an elderly acquaintance - it was only my second funeral in the past year or so and I was struck by the sparse turnout compared with the previous one, which had been for a considerably younger person. But then it's difficult to reach a ripe old age without the windfalls having rotted away already, while the funerals of the young have at least this small compensation: they're mostly pretty well attended, unless the deceased was especially loathsome.

A stroll through the cemetery grounds was the usual pathos parade: "Sadly Missed . . .", "Much Loved . . .", "Together at Last . . ." and so on. Then there were the graves themselves, which, in progression from the marmoreal splendour of the High Victorian - complete with columns, petrified laurel leaves and caryatids - to the post-war modernism of row after row of miniature Mies van der Rohes, reflected the evolving urbanity of their constructors.

To observe that cemeteries are the deathly analogues of the living cities within which they're implanted is as trite as noting that the funerals of the old often aren't that popular - still, on some days a plastic bag snared in park railings emanates tremendous profundity, while on others mortality itself is pretty, um, dull. That our town plans are shaded in with these greyfield sites is something we take so much for granted as to scarcely notice it: the train pulls away from a terminus built on top of a overcrowded catacomb and accelerates past the tightly packed headstones of inner-city graveyards; then, as we reach the leafy outskirts, we find the green swathes of garden necroburbia.

London, being a large and old city, displays this character very plainly: the inner boroughs, having filled up their allotted plots by the early 19th century, bought up tracts of open land further out and soon developed thriving cemeteries, which is why - to give just one example - St Pancras and Islington Cemetery is located between Finchley High Road and the North Circular. They order these matters better elsewhere: the Glasgow Necropolis looms over the living city like a Caledonian fantasy on a theme by Arnold Böcklin; while in the polymorphously perverse context of Los Angeles, an Elysium such as Forest Lawn Memorial-Park seems homely.

Clearly part of Americans' Manifest Destiny is to plant corpses further west. Here, however, the fashion for cremation came about because of our right, tight little towns becoming overpopulated by cadavers. But there were still those pesky cremains to deal with and in due course our cities have become almost as cluttered with their containers. My father's leftovers reside in a multi-storey columbarium, while my mother had to make do with a collective marker on Hampstead Heath that she shares with other Jewish people who died of cancer.

Dead serious

I say she had to make do - but I mean me and her other formerly nearest and dearest, because, while I bow to no man or woman in the militancy of my agnosticism, I still think the odds are pretty much stacked against a purgatory that consists in hanging around Hampstead Heath - or Mortlake for that matter. Which is where collective irrationality enters the picture: why should the biodegradable remains of human beings be lumped together in this fashion? Is it that having been a part of the crowd in life they cannot bear to experience a solitary afterlife?

Obviously not. No, our necropolises are the product of two irrational beliefs that synergise, eating up quality real estate. On the one hand we have the childlike conviction that the plains of heaven closely resemble the gardens of suburbia - right down to concrete wishing wells and dinky picket fences - while on the other we have the livings' need to do everything, including "visiting" the dead, en masse. You see this in Scotland in particular, where on a Sunday afternoon cemeteries are packed out with relatives indulging in the al fresco housework of dusting headstones and rearranging floral displays.

I'm not quite so monstrous as to suggest that we require no ritualised remembrance or our dead, but need it be quite such a grim parody of our own quotidian existence? After all, there's an awful lot of countryside crying out for bodies to be buried in it. I can readily imagine a shift in our ritual life that would see people six feet under areas of outstanding natural beauty, and their loved ones visiting on foot. English heritage indeed.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain