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Cemeteries are fascinating places. I often visit them. Previously, for reasons unrelated to burials. Now, happily, I mostly go along like everyone else as a curious tourist rather than for paying my respects to the dead.
My first experience of a cemetery, however, was to do a job. I wasn’t a grave digger... or a vicar. It was more of a chore than a job because I certainly don't recall being paid. As an irritable 11-year-old kid I resented having to do it. My task was to cut the grass, with knackered, rusty old shears, on a number of graves, which, thankfully, meant I only had to do it during summer when the grass grew more quickly. This wasn’t a long-term stretch – I’d served my time in just two summers. I was sentenced to this gig to relieve my grandad of the onerous responsibility of keeping part of the cemetery tidy when he became too old to bend down much. I remember shuffling about on my knees, feverishly hacking away, muttering expletives, aggrieved at the unfairness of it all. If anyone saw me, they'd probably wonder what hell I was doing. I didn’t have a great deal of time for Grandad. Sounds a bit mean but he generally wasn’t a nice man. I kind of yearned for one of those jovial old fellahs that everyone else apparently had, especially on telly – one who’d tell you stories of the old days and make you laugh and gave you sweets. Mine was mostly grumpy, indifferent and joyless. Sneers, barked demands and smelly farts were more the order of the day. I did occasionally try to like him more and throw a few kindly smiles his way, but he wasn’t really interested. The old sod. But he’s another story. One day, maybe.

My best friend and I used to hang out in the churchyard sometimes. Can’t remember why. Lounging on someone’s tomb didn’t seem particularly disrespectful at the time. The cemetery, just up the road from the church was another quiet place where we sometimes went to experiment with different types of homemade cigarettes, relaxing in the knowledge that we were unlikely to be disturbed by busy-bodies. We were quite good kids who preferred not to be seen by someone who might tell your mum about you smoking. Proper scallywags wouldn’t have given a toss. Our selection of smokes ranged from a simple piece of rolled up card – good for keeping an ember and producing smoke but they didn’t half make you cough and were decidedly unpleasant – to tobacco rolled into tissue paper with a card ‘filter’. These were a bit floppy but worked really well. The tobacco was scavenged from tab ends, found discarded on the street. Nowadays, I’d hesitate to touch something that may have recently been hanging between the lips of some old mucker with poor mouth hygiene. Even we drew a line at re-using a discarded filter though. Again, they were a bit rough on the old throat. So, what was the point? You could consider it as just a craft activity, I guess, that cost us nothing. The fags were so god-awful, we were never going to get addicted!   

Next memory of frequenting cemeteries was as a place where free flowers were readily available. I had few qualms about nabbing a few different blooms from graves in order to present a reasonable bouquet to my girlfriend. Teenagers can be annoying little shits. I’d be furious if I saw one nicking my deceased’s flowers. But you’re indifferent to the feelings of strangers when you’re 17 and in love (or lust) with someone. I can’t remember if she was ever aware of her flowers’ provenance, or whether she was even bothered. She seemed to like me anyway.

Eventually, I found myself surrounded by gravestones and tombs to attend an actual funeral. The novelty aspect was short lived. Nobody wants to be there on official business.

Now my visits are primarily for aesthetic purposes if mourning is avoidable. I’ve done a few of the big names – Highgate, Père Lachaise, Glasgow Necropolis, Arlington in Virginia, though none were primary reason destinations. If there’s an interesting one nearby wherever I happen to be I might pop in to have a look. And I’ve just realised… the view from my art room, where I teach, is directly onto the local churchyard, full of gravestones and tombs.

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