I love walking through graveyards, and have been lucky enough to do so all over the world. Although creepy to some, for me, it is a very peaceful environment. Whilst living in central Glasgow, I would regularly walk up to the Necropolis, where enormous and grand mausoleums wound their way up the hill, and more modern graves filled the slopes. In fact, Akylina and I took a lovely long walk there when she visited the city for a conference.
Graveyards all over the United Kingdom are the focus of poet and non-fiction author Jean Sprackland’s These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards. Her memoir of sorts has been split into eight different sections; these include loose musings on topics like ‘The Graveyard in Spring’, ‘The Graveyard at Dawn’, and ‘The Drowned Graveyard’.
In her prologue, Sprackland comments: ‘I can remember my life by the graveyards I have known… Wherever I have lived, I have found them – some like cities, others like gardens, or forests of stone – and they have become the counterparts of those lived places: the otherworlds which have helped make sense of this world.’ She goes on to write about her decision to ‘revisit all my old hometowns, to make a journey into the physical fabric of my own past.’
In beautiful prose, Sprackland takes us around the country. The first stop on each trip is the graveyard, the place where she believes ‘the stories are kept’. Her descriptions are gorgeously poetic; of a grave in Stoke Newington, for instance, she writes: ‘A breeze ripples the roof of the tomb with shadow. The lower branches of a holly tree languish exhaustedly over its surface, like the thin arms of a girl over her books.’
For Sprackland, too, graveyards are a place filled with peace: ‘Sorrow is present, but age and weather have tempered it.’ She writes at length about her infatuations with individuals buried in the various graveyards which she visits – Elizabeth Pickett, for instance, who died in 1781 ‘in consequence of her Cloaths taking Fire the preceding Evening’, and a smuggler and ‘sometime leader of a notorious gang’ in Devon, quite wonderfully named Hanibal Richards. Alongside these individual stories, she seamlessly integrates a wider sense of place, and discusses the avoidance of, and discomfort felt toward, the notion of death in many modern day societies. She also writes about the history of each graveyard which she visits.
Sprackland writes with such insight. She informs her reader: ‘I am accustomed to thinking of the graveyard as a kind of archive, a source of information which is not available elsewhere.’ She is also honest about the little she knows regarding her own family: ‘What does it mean, anyway, to belong somewhere?… No place owns me, and I like staying free, staying lost. But I don’t know where the bones of my ancestors lie, and I have never seen a monument bearing my family name.’
These Silent Mansions is both absorbing and moving, and infused with such beauty. Sprackland’s journey, around both her past and the pasts of so many who lie beneath the ground, is a quiet and absorbing one. The author writes so tenderly about the natural decay of both gravestones, and the bodies which lie beneath them: ‘Words blur and lose their definition, or the stone recedes and the leading stands proud on its pegs like long teeth before loosening and falling out.’ These Silent Mansions is utterly transporting, and so thoughtful.