Sunday, 29 May 2016

Our May meeting: Let's walk, and talk about death... around St. George's Fields with Morticia

Death is a thing that many of us tend to only want to talk about when we really have to. When it touches us personally; when we suffer the shock of losing a loved one, or if we suffer an accident, or have a health scare (or perhaps, dare I say it, simply because we are getting older). For much of our lives we don't really think about it, and don't talk about it too much. Despite the fact that it happens all the time, and we will all meet it, and we all know this, death is pushed to the periphery of our particular culture, and of course we are focused on living - so perhaps it is understandable that we tend to view thoughts of death as unconducive to the business of getting on with our daily lives.

But we, us Darling Roses, we ain't afraid of no death (to badly paraphrase Ray Parker Jr) - we're deep, we have enquiring minds, no subject is too odd or quirky for our meetings (isn't that right girls?!) and so, the seed of our little trip out for our May meeting was planted when Morticia Maguire-Broad, our friend from Buns & Roses WI, visited us last year to talk about Victorian death customs (woven in with much historical detail about the business of death in Victorian Leeds). We found the whole subject fascinating, with Victorian attitudes to death being so markedly different to our modern day treatment of the subject, it threw open many questions for us. Morticia's presentation featured her own photography and the beautiful images taken in St. George's Fields piqued our interest about the place, and so we planned May's meeting into our 2016 calendar as a 'part two' with Morticia, guiding us on a walk around the Fields. 

So, on an unexpectedly beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon, we met in The Library pub in Woodhouse. We got a few bevvies and plates of chips in first, as you do - with the barman remarking that he doesn't usually sell so much wine so early in the day! Well, life is short, to continue the theme... :-)  We dispensed with any official meeting business quickly (and dispensed with the wine and chips even quicker) and headed out.

St George's Fields are a hidden treasure, part of the Leeds University campus, with an imposing Greek Revival style entrance hidden on a side street behind the Engineering building. It was established as the Leeds General Cemetery in 1835. The city's elite had grown alarmed by the overcrowded, unsanitary condition of graveyards in the city and the macabre crimes of body snatchers, and so created the Leeds General Cemetery Company - the buying of shares in which enabled the purchase of the land known as St George's Fields, and the building of a fine, private cemetery, oh yes, you had to have money to rest here!

Sadly, the University acquired the site in 1965, and in its wisdom decided to clear the cemetery and dismantle most of the gravestones and monuments - the stones to be used elsewhere. We were very moved at the thought of the families who had buried their loved ones there in times gone by, trusting that their family resting place would be preserved intact for future generations. It seems a cruel desecration. However, a 'feeling' of the original cemetery does still remain. Apart from the fact that it is still a beautiful, peaceful, restful place - hidden within its walls from the bustling streets nearby - there are separate small areas of gravestones which survived the demolition and remain at the two ends of the Fields, and also a pathway made from gravestones close to the central Temple-style chapel (sadly stripped and devoid of original details inside). Next to the entrance closest to Clarendon Road there is also the imposing 'Obelisk Way', a pathway lined with some very grand Victorian tombstones, heavy on angels, draped urns, obelisks, and of course many beautiful inscribed dedications to loved ones. My favourite thing about visiting a graveyard is that little insight we get into all of their lives when we read the words they have chosen to remember people with.

"So we go inside and we gravely read the stones
All those people all those lives
Where are they now?
With the loves and hates
And passions just like mine
They were born
And then they lived and then they died
Seems so unfair
And I want to cry"
(Cemetery Gates, The Smiths)

So, there you have it. A walk around a graveyard can make for a beautiful, edifying afternoon out, especially in the company of a guide like Morticia, who has knowledge and passion about the subject in spades. Thank you Morticia for introducing us to a new favourite place.

Firemen monument

(And to continue the theme, we are planning to hold a 'death cafe' event, hopefully at some point next year. Watch this space.)