Heritage is something we produce together. Its a matter for communities that may be constituted in a range of ways. But it is also personal. Most of what I talk about in this blog is about my own reactions, my own thoughts and connections. I use the first person singular and I’m upfront about my opinions. But though I talk a lot about cemeteries and death I haven’t talked about my own experience of those things.
Like most middle aged people, I’ve buried some family members. My maternal grandfather, uncle and grandmother are buried in Hampstead Cemetery. My paternal grandfather and grandmother are buried in a small cemetery in the Forest of Dean, though my grandfather died before I was born. My Father’s ashes are scattered in the ocean off Glenhaven in Nova Scotia. And my daughter is buried in a cemetery here in Portsmouth.
Most people don’t know about my daughter because she died before she was born. Only my husband, myself and the celebrant attended her funeral – our families would have come, but live too far. Infant plots in that cemetery are 1/4 adult plots and are not permitted to have headstones or permanent markers. When I visit there is always a new set of flowers and toys for new families saying goodbye. Her coffin was cardboard and since she was so small I expect her remains won’t last as long as an adult’s. In archaeological terms, ephemeral. In terms of Portsmouth heritage, inconsequential. In terms of my heritage, monumental.
I don’t just mean that my grief at her loss has become part of me. Her funeral attached me to Portsmouth in ways that happy life events have not. I feel it is my town far more now. It changes how I view cemeteries in general and that one in particular. When the new ‘long barrow’ opened in Wiltshire (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-29225327) I thought ‘I can imagine being buried there, but I think I’d rather be buried here’. Before I buried her, I had no opinion on what would happen to my body after death.
That was a weak position to consider past burial practices from. My MA was on the landscape surrounding Fourknocks passage tomb in Co Meath Ireland. My interest in the tomb was marginal to my interest in the landscape. Even people interested in the tomb are mostly interested in the rock art and the landscape position.
But the site is a tomb and my own writing about it treats burial as a proxy for people, rather than the complex act of meaning making that it is. Coincidentally, it is an interesting site partly because it has substantially more children’s remains than elsewhere. In particular a deposit of many children’s bones in the passage of the tomb, with adult skulls placed among them. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/.VC1Dub5TQ20 As a young woman this was interesting background information. As a middle aged woman, it seems much more important.
There was an option not to bury my daughter. Different people deal with grief differently. Every burial has stories clustering around it, the stories of how people deal with their grief through material engagements.The materialisation of these differences is heritage. Complex, variable, unknowable and powerful.
I was nervous to post this, but in the end I think its important. Partly because I think we are all underpinned by private heritages. I wanted to share mine to underline that we all have them. I shared the post with a friend before posting and she said it made her reflect on her family’s recent losses and how the burials tie them to different landscapes. Partly because our perspectives colour the stories we tell about heritage so I though I ought to share mine. But mostly because it hovers in the back of my mind every time I write, or think or speak about cemeteries.