Moving to a new town means having to discover convenient new dog-walking areas. There’s a great little park near us – but there’s a limit to the route variations one can take in it, so it is already getting a little dull (though the seasonal colours definitely help). So I’ve really pushed the boat out and mix it up with the local cemetery. I’ve already grown to love it.

It was probably laid out in the late Victorian period, at a time when (I guess) Maidenhead was beginning to sprawl a little. It must have felt semi-rural then but is surrounded by housing now.

Naturally, you wander around and read the inscriptions. And the obvious and almost platitudinous dawned on me. Each one tells a story – within the ultra-strict form and conventions of funeral directors’ engravers.

Ernest Hemingway famously inspired the genre of the 6-word short story (as I posted about a few years back), with his ingenious offering:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

Poignant and tantalising. Provocative but somehow sufficient. There are many others out there, as this fun site has compiled.

But this morning, it occurred to me that gravestones function a little like that. Here are three I looked at this morning. I know nothing about any of these families. But I found myself mulling on the stories that must lie behind the bald facts of these lives.

  • John B was widowed for 35 years; their daughter Lillian lived almost as long as her father, but presumably never married.
  • Losing a child is the cruellest fate. THere is never a good age for that to happen. But there is something especially cruel about losing a teenager, as the Jones’s clearly did. Is there an added poignancy too, that June died just a few months after the end of the Second World War. Were there other children? We’ve no idea from this. But June’s parents lived over 40 years with the grief, which must have been a daily affliction.
  • This is a surprisingly new grave for a couple who died in 1943. Or at least it is one that has been renewed and is kept in good condition, with some new flowers at its base. So there are evidently family or friends who visit. 74 years later. And what is the story behind William and Constance sharing the same death year? Were they killed in the 2WW blitz? or a terrible accident? or something darker or more deliberate? Who knows. But their’s is a legacy that clearly evokes grief and mourning even today.

It occurred to me, then, that everybody should do this from time to time. Not out of morbid obsession but living compassion. It’s yet another reminder that everybody has a story, and everybody conceals hidden griefs and pain. But I think just as pastors and preachers should all read fiction (about which I’ve blogged regularly) so should we all spend the occasional moment meditating on the stories of the graveyard.

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