As noted in this piece from 2018, November is the month of the dead in the Catholic Church. Most years there are ceremonies in local cemeteries on the first or second Sunday of the month to bless the graves of deceased parishioners. This year’s ceremonies were cancelled even before the reimposition of lockdown rules last week.
Last weekend, on Remembrance Sunday, my son and I walked to the cemetery where my mother is buried, 35 minutes away. We left later than I had planned, sometime after 4pm. Our route took us through Chiswick House Grounds. The signs at the entrance to the grounds told us that it closes at 5pm but it wasn’t clear whether that’s the time they start locking the gates or whether they are all locked by then. Either way, we were out by 4.50pm and at the cemetery before 5pm. The opening times for November to February are, nominally, 9am to 4pm, but it looks like the main gates are never closed these days. Although we were just a week into November, the sky was almost dark. I have only visited graves in daylight before, but we carried on and were out before night had fallen completely.
I have noticed before that some of the graves have candles or small lamps burning and assume that these are intended as “eternal flames” for whoever is buried there. The most noticeable, even in daylight, is on the grave of a soldier, a Gurka who died fairly recently, in his 90s. The tombstone has a picture of him in full uniform. Arriving in the cemetery at dusk I was surprised at how many flames were burning, especially in the area where the newest graves are. My son and I walked to the far end of the site, beyond where my mother is buried. A railway line runs along there, and the footpath beside it is well-lit. So too is the main road that forms another of the cemetery’s boundaries. But there are no lamp-posts in the graveyard itself. The only light comes from the dozens of candles and lamps that feature on individual graves. They serve to make the whole place less spooky than I thought it might be.
As we made our way out through the main gates it almost felt like the occupants were settling in for the night. It reminded me of the end of the Thorton Wilder play “Our Town”, or how I imagine it to be. I have never seen it or read it, but it’s referenced in at least one Douglas Coupland novel: characters buried in the town’s graveyard appear and converse in the play’s final act. It felt like we should leave them to it.
We made our way back home, stopping to read the memorial on Staveley Road to the first victims of the V2 missiles directed at London in World War Two. Three local residents were killed on 8 September 1944. The nearby gates to Chiswick House Grounds were still open but we didn’t walk back that way. When I was a teenager, a schoolfriend and I once walked through the park after a concert at the amphitheatre. The route to the Park Road entrance was lit up, but our journey took us down the main drive, which was in pitch darkness. It was terrifying, far more scary than being in a cemetery at dusk.