I began writing this post nearly two months ago, but have hesitated to post it because I’ve felt there’s been such a lot of sad news, close to home and far away. I know from previous posts that I’m not the only one who finds graveyards fascinating and thought-provoking. They make me aware of how precious my life is, problems and all. But if you really don’t need a post about cemeteries, come back in a couple of days for a cheerful post about a crochet baby blanket!
At the beginning of May, I had the chance to visit the Glasgow Necropolis with a friend. It’s a fascinating place, and even a couple of dozen photographs don’t begin to do it justice. I have quoted from Ronnie Scott’s book Death by Design: The True Story of the Glasgow Necropolis. I’ll try to keep text to a minimum as I share with you what I saw:
The Glasgow Necropolis was opened in 1833. The Greek name “necropolis” (City of the Dead) reflects the Greek Revival fashion that was all the rage at the time. Once through the entrance gates, you walk down a path past the Cathedral.
The path takes you across a bridge. The bridge now crosses a road, but in former times the Molendinar Burn ran down the valley (very similarly to the Denburn Valley next to Union Terrace Gardens in Aberdeen). Scott writes: “The journey over the Molendinar reminded many Christians of the River Jordan, which separates the wilderness of the world from the Promised Land.” (p. 36)
The hill the Necropolis is on is very steep indeed. Looking up:
We walked past the grave of the man who composed “Wee Willie Winkie”. He died penniless but his friends and admirers raised this monument to him (Scott, p. 49):
The very first grave was that of Joseph Levi, who was buried in the Jewish part of the cemetery in 1832. The Jewish community had bought this part of the cemetery in 1830. The Necropolis was designed from the beginning to accommodate those of all faiths, but its layout “can be seen to mirror the social or class distinction of the city in the nineteenth century. Only the truly elite were allowed to be buried on the summit of the hill, near to the monument of John Knox.” (Scott, p. 6) It is significant that the Jewish plot is at the very bottom of the hill.
We came to an amazing and famous grave, that of the Queen of the Gipsies:
Scott says nothing more is known about her. He also doesn’t mention or explain the many coins shoved into the cracks of her monument:
I would be very curious to know what that is all about!
Going further up the hill, you reach a kind of avenue of family crypts. People were understandably worried about grave-diggers and robbers, and wealthy families could afford to build locked crypts for their deceased loved ones:
Some of these have been restored, and the ironwork repainted:
My friend and I peered into one; you can see us reflected in the granite. It reminded me of the scene in The Sound of Music where the Von Trapps hide in a crypt!
I really liked this monument to an actor. It depicts a theatre in the middle, with Comedy on the left (though the statue has been taken away) and Tragedy on the right:
The inscription is touching, and I think reflects what we often say now when a public person dies, namely that their most important role was as a friend and family member:
The views from the Necropolis are pretty stunning. You can see in almost all directions:
My friend explained to me some of the symbols that the Victorians – so fond of symbolism! – used on graves. A broken column and an upside-down torch both signified that the person had died before their time:
Most of the large monuments were to men, but this one to Agnes Shaw caught my attention, because I didn’t see any others with the likeness of a woman on it:
As is usual in Scottish graveyards, women are identified by their maiden names. I’m told that a few generations back, women were known to each other by their maiden names long after marriage.
Vandalism was in evidence in some sad ways throughout the Necropolis, as in all cemeteries. Neglect and vegetation are taking their toll. Ronnie Scott describes the various agendas that people have concerning cemeteries, from the family history buffs who come to read the names and inscriptions, to the nature-lovers who want to make sure habitats are protected. “People with an overriding interest in health and safety would like to see all the monuments laid flat so that no one can be injured by falling stones.” (p. 27) This may sound ridiculous, but very sadly a boy was killed recently by a toppled gravestone here in Glasgow (albeit not in the Necropolis).
I don’t know what the answer is, and I’m glad it isn’t my responsibility! But I was amused by this graffiti:
When I’m wandering around a graveyard, I often think of a story told by Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking. A very unhappy man came to see him, convinced that his troubles were insurmountable and the worst in the world. To give him some perspective, Peale asked if he would like to go to a place where no-one had problems. He said indeed he would! Well, of course that place was the cemetery.
I will end with a quote from Ronnie Scott’s book that involves graffiti. On a gravestone is carved: “Remember, man, as you pass by, / As you are now, so once was I: / As I am now, so you must be / Therefore prepare to follow me”. Beneath, in chalk, someone had written: “To follow you, I’m not content / Until I know which way you went.” (p. ix) Typical Glasgwegian banter!
References are to Ronnie Scott, Death by Design: The True Story of the Glasgow Necropolis, Black and White Publishing, 2005.