For some time now, it’s been clear to me that consciousness of death is a kindness bestowed on us by the Great Intelligence, so that even if all else succeeded we would always have something to worry about. This, of course, accounts for pussy cats and lions sleeping 18 hours a day and therefore failing to invent the fax machine. Us humans, up and anxious about death, have passed the time thinking up civilisation as a way to distract ourselves, or at least to let others know that we’re awake, too. Unfortunately, the fax machine having already been invented, I had to settle simply for being up and anxious all Bank Holiday weekend, brooding darkly and leafing restlessly through the Gazetteer of London Cemeteries.*

It began when my friend Jenny (not me in my Post-Modern mode, but someone else entirely) made me the offer of a lifetime. She’d bought a plot in Highgate Cemetery, she told me, which was a mere snip at £700, especially since it accommodated three ex-people. Would I care to share it with her? Not immediately, of course, but when the time came. Highgate Cemetery is a very nice place, and Jenny is an old and dear friend. I was properly honoured; no one else I’ve known has ever wanted to spend eternity with me – as a rule the occasional supper is sufficient – and I wished to express my gratitude. But at the same time my heart rate began to speed, and my throat to constrict: classic signs of claustrophobia and panic. I’ve never been any good at long-term commitment.

‘Are you sure?’ I asked. ‘It’s a bit perpetual. What about your children?’

‘They can make their own arrangements,’ she said darkly.

Jenny is known for going off people – even people who are not her children. She keeps a bottle of Tippex beside her address book to deal with those she’s no longer on speaking terms with. I felt that apart from my reservations about making a long-term commitment, we ought to be realistic about the eternal prospects of our friendship.

‘I know we get on well, but we have to think practically. Forever’s, well, a very long time to be side by side.’

‘Actually, one on top of the other. It’s a vertical plot.’

There was a lot to think about here. Assuming that things went according to the Great Chronologist’s plan, Jenny-who-isn’t-me would be tucked in first, since she’s twenty years older. On the other hand, I smoke several packs a day and eat salami like sweeties. There was, therefore, no guarantee that I’d get top bunk.

While I was wondering if this mattered, the Heir Apparent shuffled into the room and announced that she had something to say about all this, since, after all, she’d be in charge of arrangements. We’d already had a prior conversation about the disposal of my remains because she’s a sensible girl and doesn’t like to leave things to the last minute. I’d suggested cremation (so they could play ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ while the casket slid behind the modesty curtain) and that my ashes should be scattered over the threshold of the Hampstead branch of Nicole Farhi.

The only other really appealing possibility was a monomaniacal plan of the Victorian architect, Thomas Willson, who in 1842 designed a brick and granite sepulchral pyramid with a base area the size of Russell Square to be built on Primrose Hill. Its 94 levels (topped by an observatory) would be ‘sufficiently capacious to receive five millions of the dead, where they may repose in perfect security’. The scheme foundered, but if anyone feels like reviving it, I’d be happy to make a contribution in return for a guaranteed place somewhere near the pinnacle. Failing that, I thought I would after all settle for the shared accommodation on offer in Highgate Cemetery.

‘God, you’re always changing your mind,’ the Heir Apparent said impatiently. ‘If you’re buried you’ll have to have a headstone. That’s more of my inheritance gone, and what’s it going to say on it?’

Jenny Diski lies here. But tells the truth over there,’ I instructed. ‘Also, I’d like a dove, a wing-ed angel, an anchor and an open book, properly carved on a nice piece of granite.’

The Heir’s eyes narrowed dangerously.

‘You get in for nothing if you’ve got a relative on site. Otherwise it’s a pound a head. So there’s a saving,’ the other Jenny reassured her. ‘And there’s much more scope for drama in a proper burial. At the last funeral I went to, the grieving mistress tried to throw herself into the grave. Very satisfactory, and not a thing you can do at a cremation without making a nasty stink.’

It looked like it was decided. I wasn’t to go up in smoke, but would instead fatten the worms which feed the birds which keep the London cats sleek, self-satisfied and asleep for 18 hours a day. While the other Jenny went off to spend the holiday weekend in Bradford (which gave more pause for thought about spending eternity in such eccentric company), I hunkered down with my Gazetteer to apprise myself of the interment possibilities.

It was not so much the fact of death as the quantity of it that struck me. In 1906 the Angel of Death dropped in on houses in London at the rate of once every six minutes. Oddly, London’s population has returned to roughly what it was at the beginning of the century, though I suppose that the death rate (Bottomley notwithstanding) must have fallen. I added to my collection of useless but disturbing thoughts the fact that currently the total land used for burial in London is three thousand acres. Anyone with GCSE maths (three thousand acres ÷ six-foot plot × three bodies deep) could work out how many dead are lying around London. I don’t have GCSE maths, so I didn’t try, but, according to the Gazetteer, Highgate has 51,000 plots containing 166,000 bodies. Do the rest of the arithmetic for yourselves. And if you’re very keen, how many people in total have died since Homo got to its feet? More than everyone alive today? I only wonder because I like large numbers.

I was troubled by the idea of so many people dying as we wake and sleep and go about our business. It’s an astonishing feat of human lack of imagination to be able to ignore all those souls up and down our streets, fluttering off minute by minute, all around us. I remembered an incident in the early Seventies (when else) during a community festival in Camden Square’s central patch of railed-off greenery. Perhaps it was midsummer, or Easter, or maybe it was just one of those pseudo-spontaneous street parties that were supposed to weld us all together, before we knew the Eighties were coming. Anyway, we had a great bonfire, a lamb roasting on a spit, rock ’n’ roll megawatting through monster speakers and the decidedly mixed inhabitants of the square – the teenage villains, prepubescent truants and lawless toddlers of our Free School plus the recent incoming gentry whose houses they regularly broke into. The robbers and the robbed mingled riotously to celebrate the spirit of their community.

Suddenly, someone was standing out on the street, shouting through the railings. ‘There’s a woman dying at number 65!’ he bellowed at us revellers over and over again, and finally made himself heard. ‘Hasn’t she got the right to die in peace?’

There was a bit of a lull, long enough for any-man’s-death-diminishes-me sort of thoughts to start rolling around in my head, before a bearded and bejeaned community hero spoke up for the collective will. He was sorry about the woman, he told her son or husband or friend, but there were a couple of hundred people out here, also belonging to this square, and we were celebrating life. Man! The very shade of Jeremy Bentham hovered over Camden Square for a second, and then a roar of affirmation went up. The Utilitarians won the day, The Stones were turned up again to ear-splitting level, and John Donne slunk back with the soon-to-be-bereaved protester to get on with private dying behind closed doors. Logical, of course, but for all that, the lamb tasted raw and rotten to me.

It’s possible I take death too seriously. It’s always seemed a momentous business, coming, as it generally does, after a lifetime’s consideration, unlike, for example, birth, which happens (to the new-born, if not the parents) before one has a chance to consider it, so far as I can tell. For a long time I supposed it only happened to very serious and substantial people, but then my father died when I was 17 and I was amazed to discover that something as weighty as death could be done by someone so dedicated to evading life’s trickier realities. I confess I was, and still am, impressed that he could have done something so committed as to die.

The Gazetteer, however, kept all such metaphysical thoughts up in the air where they belong, and my feet on the ground. It quotes from the Builder in 1879: ‘The principles of proportion and of harmony of grace and form which are required by a well-dressed woman in her costume are equally applicable when she comes to choose a tombstone for her husband.’ Though not as much fun, I should think, as burying a husband, thoughts about one’s own tomb are just as sartorial. What if Armani and Calvin Klein diversified into the undertaking and stone-dressing business? I could fancy an eternity of decomposition under a layered beige, beautifully cut headstone. But could my cheapskate descendant be trusted not to shop around and dump me in the Monsoon cemetery for dead hippies?

Planning the style of one’s burial is also a rather cunning way to avoid thinking about its prerequisite, I discovered. The Gazetteer has no mention of people dying or the manner of their death, and in an investigative wander around West Hampstead Cemetery (I thought I’d better wait for Jenny’s return from sunny Bradford before visiting my prospective plot) there were very few indications of how the interred got there. I suppose it doesn’t matter unless something extra special carried them off. I’m rather partial to the idea of being translated, myself, but mostly the dear departed, sorely missed, tended to fall asleep or pass away.

Except for Tony. Tony was carved in six-inch lettering on a slab of black marble and under it was inscribed: I Had a Lover’s Quarrel with the World 1947-1987. I was moved. Forty-year-old Tony. One of my lot. Post-war Tony, agitated by peace and prosperity, his youth a haze of misremembered sex and drugs and rock and roll, as overfull of romantic aspirations as he was of existential despair, threw in his towel after doing the best he could to compose a resonant if pretty yukky farewell to life. Sadly, when I got home, I found it was a quote from Robert Frost. Even so, Tony didn’t just pass away and wanted to be remembered for not doing so. Perhaps he died of disappointment at not even being able to think up an epitaph of his own. Mostly, disappointment of one kind or another is what my generation died young of. If it’s any consolation to them, those of us who remain find ourselves with the practicalities of not having died young to attend to.

There is, apparently, a cemetery in Buenos Aires which is a veritable city of the dead, with named avenues lined with scaled-down architected homes for the late-lamented. Relatives come and housekeep on Sundays, dusting, polishing and replacing lace doilies while chatting to neighbouring survivors over the fence. This set me brooding about my one-up-one-down resting place in Highgate. What about a mausoleum, I began to wonder. It could be fitted with a wood-burning stove and comfy chairs. I’d leave funds so that a bottle of Scotch and packs of cards would be available in perpetuity, so friends and well-wishers could drop by on gloomy Sundays for a game of poker. The Heir Apparent was not keen on this idea. Quite apart from the drain on her inheritance (‘To hell with the expense,’ I cried. ‘You’re so selfish,’ she hissed), there was the matter of the earth’s resources to consider. She pointed severely to an article on natural death.

‘There is some other kind?’ I queried.

It turns out there’s no legal reason not to bury your dead in the back garden. I was delighted.

‘Darling, you can have me around always. Sod Highgate. You can just dig me a nice big hole and pop me under the yucca.’

She explained this wasn’t a good idea because it would very likely lower the value of the house when she came to sell it, and she certainly wasn’t going to dig me up and take me with her every time she moved.

I called the Natural Death Centre and a Mr Albery explained that their idea is to use European Union set-aside land to inter bodies and create lovely nature reserves full of you and me, while the farmers get paid for not growing anything useful on it. Instead of gravestones, they’ll have trees. I could have a plaque if I wanted it, though he didn’t sound enthusiastic. No need for embalming. All those chemicals are just to stop what’s going to happen anyway from happening for a while. It seems it’s perfectly all right to keep an unembalmed body at home for up to three days, and frankly who wants one around longer? And forget about coffins. Mr Albery advises the use of a simple sheet. By now the Heir was smiling broadly; it was all beginning to look like a pretty thrifty exercise.

However, it turned out that for £85 a specially woven natural woollen shroud can be purchased, which has a plank along the middle (to stop that nasty wobbling corpse effect) and four ropes at each corner for lowering it into the grave. A bargain, I thought, though the Heir muttered that one of our old sheets would do perfectly well. Still, I have a terrible dislike of the cold, especially when it gets into the bones. There was something comforting about the prospect of a woollen shroud, and I think she would have relented if just then I hadn’t remembered that I have no desire in this life or after it to conserve resources, that I am and always have been an urban dweller and I didn’t see why a detail like death should mean I have to end up in some draughty, disorganised, naturally set-aside bit of rustic. What I fancied was a proper old-fashioned pollution-filled London cemetery to rest my wearied bones, and if I couldn’t have it, along with an expensively carved headstone and a very long and elaborate funeral, with hymns and popular hits of the Sixties sung, a certain amount of dancing, and my deeds recounted for the edification of all, then the Heir could whistle for her inheritance and I’d leave everything to the Natural Death Centre including my clothes. That did it. A proper interment at Highgate is assured.

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Vol. 16 No. 14 · 21 July 1994

Is the number of human beings who are dead greater than the number who are alive? Jenny Diski (LRB, 23 June) asks an important question. The answer, by most estimates, is no. For the first time in human history the living outnumber the dead. In the last few decades the scales have shifted: now we outweigh the ancestors. This may be why we are in so much trouble.

John Ryle
London W11

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