Notes from West London

Knowing where the bodies are buried

In the Catholic Church, November is the month of the dead. It begins with the Feast of All Saints (“all the saints, known and unknown”). The Feast of All Souls (“all the faithful departed”) follows on 2 November, and for the rest of the month a daily mass is offered for the dead.

Services take place at cemeteries to bless the graves. Here in West London, at the cemetery where my mother is buried, the service is on the first or second Sunday of November. Some years it coincides with Remembrance Sunday, commemorating those who died in two world wars and other conflicts. This year it was on 4 November, a week before the centenary commemorations for the end of World War One, and I was unable to go. I was there last year and hope to go again in 2019. Since first attending this service in 1996 I have never missed two consecutive years. At various times in those 22 years it has taken place on the first truly cold day of the autumn. Or maybe it just felt that way while we were standing by the graves of our loved ones, waiting for the priest to come by. I cannot recall the ceremony ever taking place on a mild, sunny November afternoon, but most years the rain has stayed away.

You will be familiar with the phrase “knowing where the bodies are buried”. This page on tells us that its origin is fairly recent, and its earliest known use is in “Citizen Kane” (1940). 30 years ago most people would have been familiar with this Orson Welles film, but I suspect that many people under 40 have never seen it, and maybe never heard of it. The phrase is described as follows: “To know where the bodies are buried means to know the closely guarded secrets of someone or an organization. These secrets may be criminal, immoral, or simply embarrassing, confidential or proprietary.”

When it comes to our local cemetery I know, in a very literal sense, where many of the bodies are buried. I have attended enough funerals there, and visited it enough times, to know my way around. I can easily locate the final resting places of scores of people I have known, and members of their families. My mother is the only member of my family who is buried there. Most of my deceased relatives are buried in Ireland. There’s an uncle and two cousins in a graveyard near Southampton but the rest are mostly in Leinster. I could find my way to my paternal grandparents and an aunt and uncle, buried just outside Kilkenny, near the rugby club. But there are many graves on my mother’s side that I have never visited. Her father is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, which featured on BBC TV a few months ago. Deceased members of Boy George’s family are also buried there and his episode of “Who do you think you are?” included clips of him visiting the graveyard. This link to the BBC website shows that the programme is currently unavailable but it will no doubt be repeated in the near future. These shows are generally broadcast again around Christmas time. I should make a trip to Glasnevin myself at some point. When it comes to my ancestors in Ireland I really should know where the bodies are buried.




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