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11 August 2017

Beware the cemetery gates – tombstone tourism is coming back to life

We must watch out, for cemeteries have become a trope.

By Daniel Curtis

Jim Morrison’s grave feels more like a stage than a resting place. Perhaps that’s fitting. There’s a barrier separating the labyrinthine paths of Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery from Morrison’s plot. As The Doors’ frontman, he sang: “Well I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer / The end is uncertain and the end is always near”. Such dark lyricism – combined with membership of the infamous “27 Club” of stars who died young – gives Morrison and his grave a particular morbid appeal.

The barrier itself, its metal covered by stickers, is a dead ringer for a gig venue barrier, and it puts you at a remove from the tomb. If you time your visit well, there are a handful of other visitors. If you time it badly, so-called “tombstone tourists” throng the barrier, with someone playing The Doors through a speaker.

I timed it badly.

The main thing you notice is that the turf is covered with cigarette butts. Covered is not an exaggeration. A few of the tombstone tourists who were beside me muttered a few words of succour to the 60s icon – “here you go, enjoy” – as they threw half-smoked fags onto his grave.

It’s a sweet gesture, albeit one which runs uncomfortably close to glamourising premature, drug-fuelled death. Even the nearby grave of Oscar Wilde, whose donated, ornate monument is framed with lipstick kisses on napkins, small notes and well-loved editions of his bibliography, could not compete with the vibrant mania of Jim Morrison’s.

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Literature has played its part in poeticising graveyards, while pop culture’s countless premature deaths have created a cult of doomed youth. The combination of the two makes it hard not to romanticise, or at least be struck by, cemeteries.

This isn’t a new interest – Wilde and Morrison died 71 years apart. Instead it is one which has ebbed and flowed with time. That most famous of Shakespearean scenes, Hamlet’s skull-touting “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him well”, may have gone down well with the 17th century crowds, but by the 18th century, Georgian audiences were shunning it.

If there is any era synonymous with cemeteries, though, it would have to be the Victorian age. The Victorians built many of Britain’s greatest eternal resting places, and their love for graveyards – or, as it’s rather clinically known, taphophilia – is clearly reflected in the work of Charles Dickens. 

A writer who knew the power of a well-used gravestone, Dickens began Great Expectations in a cemetery. Before the dramatic introduction of the escaped convict Magwitch, protagonist Pip explains that he took Pirrip as his surname “on the authority of his [father’s] tombstone”.

“As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle – I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.”

The thought of being defined by your tombstone is certainly a dark one, but it’s also an arresting one. Dickens knew that well, because this wasn’t the first time he had used the device. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come leads Scrooge to his tomb in A Christmas Carol, as the miserly character learns the fate that awaits him if he fails to repent.

Scrooge crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, EBENEZER SCROOGE.”

So far, so recognisable. But tastes change. In the decades following Dickens’ work, the losses suffered in the First and Second World Wars made cemeteries places to avoid, rather than frolic in. Morbid fascination gave way to mourning.

Now, more than 70 years removed from the horrors of the Second World War, cemeteries have once again become palatable. Just look on Twitter, where there are countless edgy millennials quoting The Smiths’ “Cemetry Gates” [sic], whose chorus chimes: “A dreaded sunny day / So I meet you at the cemetery gates / Keats and Yeats are on your side / While Wilde is on mine”.

Similarly, there are a farcical number of climactic scenes in films featuring black-clad characters in rainy cemeteries – and not just in Four Weddings and a Funeral. In comic book movies, it’s become the lazy go-to: see Spider-Man (2002), The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), Daredevil (both the film and the Netflix series), and Hellboy. 

In short, we must be wary, for cemeteries have become a trope.

It’s the neatness of a cemetery funeral – the sense of finality, but of bittersweet emotion – that lends them so well to the screen. For a director to set their final 20 minutes in a retirement home, or a hospice, would neuter that sense of conclusion. 

Cemeteries fulfil a very clear and obvious purpose in literature: to juxtapose youth with death, and create a sense of emotional weight. It’s a conceptualisation that’s obviously helped by cemeteries being crumbly, dark and inherently creepy. They are a handy location for a writer to tie their narrative up with a neat little moribund bow.

That’s not to say that cemeteries cannot be liberated from cliché. Dickens used A Christmas Carol‘s graveyard to offer a solemn reminder to live well while you can. In “Cemetry Gates”, Morrissey is able to mock young edgelords’ pretentious attempts to outdo their peers when it comes to a love of poetical miserabilism.

In 2017, death may not happen as frequently to us as it did to the Victorians, or the wartime generations. Nevertheless, it exists, and writers must find ways of using and confronting death. These days, cremations are growing in popularity, opening up the possibility of storing ashes in a jar, scattering them to the seas, or even smoking them, if you believe the rumours about Tupac’s old group The Outlawz paying tribute to their fallen member.

The list of much-loved celebrities who died last year is eye-wateringly long: David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Alan Rickman, Sir Terry Wogan and Leonard Cohen to name but a few.

So, in the 21st century, let’s approach death in literature through unexpected and interesting lenses. It’s time to bury an artistic trope which – thanks to Dickens and Morrissey and the aestheticism of the internet – might have spawned a fatalist fanaticism that can’t be contained by a single song, narrative, or gravestone. A dreaded sunny day indeed.