Is it OK to run in a cemetery?

running

I rarely visit my sister’s grave. I feel self-conscious, like I’m stepping into a role. Should I stand forlornly in front of it? Talk to her, like someone would do in a movie scene (the kind of cheesy scene that Helen would rip the merciless piss out of, I might add)? It’s worse because it’s so public. Anyone passing through the cemetery could see me and (in my mind) scrutinise my grieving.

But the truth is, barely anyone does pass through the cemetery. It’s a shame, because it’s a beautiful space- the biggest in the UK, apparently. It has grand old trees, and well-tended flowerbeds, and acre upon acre of stones of all types. When you are standing in the middle of it, you can’t see the main roads that roar around its perimeter. In the winter, when frost evaporates from the wings of stone angels in curls of sunlit steam, you feel like you could be in Narnia.

Recently, when tinkering with my running route, I decided to take in a loop of the cemetery. I hadn’t intended to visit Helen, but once I got there, I found my feet drawn to her ‘patch’- where her neighbours are mostly other children and young people who died too soon (I think the cemetery team plan it that way, which is kind- it makes you feel less alone), with the tree in the middle that was the size of a large Christmas tree when we buried her, and now towers way above our heads.

I would have made a strange sight to anyone passing: leaning on her headstone dripping sweat and tears, my running rush sending sobs crashing through me, Sean flipping Paul blasting through my headphones. I didn’t think about what I should be doing or how I should be mourning, I just wept there for a few moments, then said ‘bye’, and ran on.

At that moment, Don’t Stop Me Now came on my playlist- one of Helen’s favourite songs, and definitely in my top five running songs. Something about the lyrics, and Freddie, and the profound knowledge that I still had life in me to run, sent me powering along- past the angels and the crumbling old graves, the newer shiny slabs and the piles of flowers for those recently gone, through the Manchester rain and the blossom petal rain. I ran my fastest 1k ever through the cemetery, Strava told me later.

A couple of days later, I stumbled across a thread in a high-brow cultural discussion group I’m a member of- oh alright, Mumsnet. It was about whether people should or should not go running in cemeteries. Many people felt that it just isn’t right, that it could offend those using the cemetery for ‘proper’ reasons, that it’s not appropriate to steam through a place of quiet reflection in neon lycra.

It puzzled me, that anyone would find it disrespectful or offensive.

I mean, I understand that there are limits. I wouldn’t advocate having a Parkrun in a cemetery (actually, I think it would be joyful, but I appreciate that somebody trying to have a quiet graveside moment might not appreciate 400 pairs of trainers thumping enthusiastically by). I wouldn’t do many other sorts of exercise there- nobody needs to hear me grunting through ten sets of burpees while they are trying to mourn. And of course, if I saw a burial taking place up ahead, I would make a discreet u-turn, just as I would stop my car to let a funeral procession pass.

But I do think we should bring these little-used spaces into our everyday lives more- not just because they are green spaces, and god knows that in our cities these are precious. But because we should stop pushing away death, as if isn’t part of life.

What do we do with our dead- bury them away and only engage with them when we make the sad little pilgrimage to stand awkwardly at a grave? I loved dropping in on my sister in an impromptu way- I can’t do that in ‘real life’, but I loved that she was part of my real life, as I ran that day. I’ve now incorporated the cemetery into my regular route, and sometimes I’ll stop by her grave for a minute (I’ll do anything for a breather), and sometimes I’ll wave as I jog by, or just glance over at ‘her’ tree with its wind chimes jangling.

I think we should run, and walk, and cycle in cemeteries- hell, let’s do yoga in cemeteries. And I think kids should go on school trips and nature walks in cemeteries. I think we should make them into places filled with more than memories and silence and ne’er-do-wells doing inappropriate things. More than spooky Halloween places.

And you know… there’s something about running in particular. If you run, you’ll know that it just feels human, in a way you can’t explain. On paper (and sometimes in reality) it’s crap: monotonous, knackering and torturous. But it feels elemental and instinctual. I’m sure that other people, who have done actual academic research and stuff, can back me up on this, but frankly I’m too tired to google.

As Bruce (king of my running playlist) sang, we are born to run. And we’re born to die, too. So at the risk of sounding like an absolute arse of a running bore, when I run, I’m respecting what it is to be human. And when I run in the cemetery, I’m respecting that it’s also human to die. Running in a graveyard seems to me, actually, like the most natural thing to do.

So if you’re walking by the largest cemetery in Britain and you see a woman with a beetroot face waving at a gravestone and perhaps weeping, or perhaps singing along to Dizzee Rascal- don’t worry, I’m fine. Come on in, instead. It’s actually rather lovely.

 

Advertisements

In Memory

17268169_1697184247246419_6614178880548765696_n

There is nothing that kills a conversation quite as effectively as the words ‘my sister died.’

When asked how many siblings I have, I always say that I was one of four. Or that I have three siblings; or that I have two sisters and one brother. It’s only when people ask where my siblings live, or how old they are, that things can get awkward.

People are always shocked. And then they want to know when, and how old she was, and how (2004; sixteen; drowning). And then they often say that they’re sorry they brought it up, that it must be hard for me to talk about. And then we move on.

The thing is, it’s not hard to talk about it. What’s hard is that it happened. Talking about her is lovely. I want to talk about her. I’m just not so sure that other people do.

I had a tattoo for Helen this week. I guess it’s my way of memorialising her. We have lots of ways of doing that, us humans- and many of them are public.

Flowers in cellophane are tied to lamp-posts, with a photo that eventually fades in the sun and turns to mush around the edges in the rain. Trees are planted, and songs written, and plaques screwed to benches, and Facebook pages created. The Taj Mahal was built by a grieving husband as a monument to his wife (the fact that she was just one of his several wives takes away some of the romance, but let’s gloss over that…).

For me, written words have been my way of creating a memorial for Helen. I have always loved writing, but losing Helen cut something open in me, and words poured from that place. Notebooks are filled with long letters to Helen and short (bad) poems and angry scribbles. There are folders of writing about Helen tucked away on the laptops I have used over the last twelve-and-some years. And there are pockets of my grief dripped like spots of ink across the internet.

So it made sense to me to use words (EE Cumming’s words) to memorialise Helen in a tattoo. But why did I write it on my skin, forever? Why not just read the poem, or have it framed? Why do so many people get tattoos in memory of someone they have lost?

Most obviously, of course, it’s about honouring the person with something permanent and indelible. My tattoo will last as long as my love and grief for Helen will last- that is, as long as I am living. It’s about making Helen present, somehow.

But there’s something else, too. For me, it’s the same as the roadside memorials, or the Taj Mahal. It’s about making private grief public.

There’s a short period of mourning after a death, when it is demanded of you to outwardly grieve, to talk, to emote. But when the world perceives that the immediate, acute wound has healed over, that’s the end of that. And never mind the scarring that remains. Normal life can cover that up like a heavy-duty concealer.

Often when I’ve written a blog about grief, I’ll get messages from people I know. ‘My sister died too.’ ‘It was like that for me, when my husband died.’ More often than not, if they are a newer friend or a work colleague, I’ll have had no idea that they went through this loss. You can’t tell, from looking at someone, what they are carrying around with them. You can’t tell from the outside if someone’s heart has been shattered, and cobbled back together.

So maybe having a tattoo, or tying bunches of flowers to a lamp-post, or drinking a little too much gin on the eve of an anniversary and misery-posting twenty photos of your loved one onto Facebook, is, in part, wanting to signal your loss, to show that you haven’t come to terms with it, or got over it, and that you never will.

I feel uncomfortable writing this, but let’s grasp the truthy nettle: I do want my grief to be recognised. More than that, I want grief, generally, to be recognised and spoken about. Not just to rear up for a few days of stricken hashtagging and tortured newspaper think-pieces when a famous person dies. Or to be packed away along with the funeral outfit that you never want to look at again.

Look, I don’t want to lie on a chaise longue and weep about my sister all day. But I do wish that we could talk about grief as easily as we talk about birth, or love, or Kimye. Let’s face it, a conversation about sex is far more likely to happen in an office environment than a conversation about grief, and something about that seems off to me.

So, in the interests of talking about loss- and if you’ve made it this far- this is what it’s like, for me, almost thirteen years down the road of grief:

I miss her every day. (See, sometimes words are so over-used that they don’t do the job unless you dig into their meaning. I miss her. Every day. If you know what that feels like- here, have an awkward hug from me. If you don’t, can you imagine? Missing someone, every day. The constant hum of something like homesickness. The longing.)

I cry for her every day. Crying doesn’t necessarily mean tears. Sometimes it’s a heavy fullness in my chest when I am washing up. Or sometimes it’s a messy, snotty sob fest into my pillow- and that kind of crying, actually, feels the best.

I can’t believe it. I still can’t believe it.

I can be happy- I am happy- but I’ll never not be sad.

I’ll love her until the end of time.

And, always, I carry her heart (I carry it in my heart).

I can only speak of my own experience. But if you know someone who is bereaved- even if it happened a long time ago, and even if they haven’t built a marble palace or injected ink into their skin to make their private grief public – maybe ask them about it sometime. The chances are, they miss their loved one every day too.

Chapter Nineteen: The Fear

Last Friday as I walked home from the shops, I had to jostle the buggy through a cluster of photographers and journalists lining the pavement outside our local church. Within the grounds, crowds of people stood, wearing dark clothes, the air heavy with what could only be grief.

A photographer confirmed, when I asked, that it was a funeral, for a teenage girl who died recently
in tragic circumstances and whose death has been in the news (incidentally, he sounded fairly disgusted with me for asking, which was a bit rich coming from the man waiting outside a funeral with a telephoto lens. Just saying).

The only other time I have seen the same church so busy, and have felt the same heaviness in the air, was for the funeral of my sister. She was a teenager too; she too died in tragic circumstances (though thankfully her death did not garner so much media interest). On that day in summer 2004, hundreds of people packed the church, sitting, standing, her classmates cross-legged on the floor.

I now attend the church, and each Sunday I still have a moment when I am stunned by the fact that we had to have that funeral, when I stare at the space at the front of the church where her casket stood. My sister, her casket. It still doesn’t compute. Some days I literally can’t believe that my worst fear- to lose one of my siblings- came to pass.

Now I am a parent I have a new worst fear to add to that one, of course. And I am fearful, every day. It feels like it will stop my own heart sometimes.

It struck me as I tried to stop the tears, and snapped at the cameraman whose tripod took up the whole pavement and forced me and the buggy onto the road, that one reason the media make so much of an untimely death is that it is comforting for it to seem unusual, foreign, the thing that happens to Other People. An everyday occurrence isn’t news. We want tragedy to be freakish.

And in a way, it is. Sixteen is nowhere within the realms of a normal life expectancy. But it does happen every day. It did happen to my sister. Maybe I am more afraid than others, for that reason. When people say that they can’t imagine losing a child, I can. I do imagine it, in spite of myself. For though I haven’t known that specific loss, I hope I’m not throwing a pity party when I say that the loss of Helen was devastating, and that I can’t imagine loving Helen more than I did, so while I may not know the particular pain of losing a child, the pain I do know provides more than a hint of that horror.

But maybe I’m not more afraid than any other parent. Maybe we are all, but for the most optimistic/blissfully ignorant/rational among us, gripped by The Fear. Maybe all of us feel somewhere deep down that we were reckless fools ever to have children, because now look what we’ve done. Our happiness and potential happiness and potential despair is poured into these vessels; we are hostages to fortune. It is, as Barack Obama put it in the wake of the Sandy Hook atrocity, ‘the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around’.

And maybe I’m not any more afraid than I ever was. I have always worried about losing my loved ones, almost obsessively at times. When Helen died it felt like a confirmation: I was RIGHT to be fearful. But yet, totally wrong. Because it didn’t make any difference, did it?

How do I handle The Fear? Do I forbid my children from going into the sea? Then the sea won’t take them as it did Helen, but they’ll also never know the joy of jumping over waves and floating belly-up in the sun- or even that strange slow-motion thrill of being sucked under by a big wave and it taking just a second too long for comfort to spiral up to the water’s surface. And then where does it end? Do I keep them out of school? Keep them in the house? In a sterilised pod where nothing and nobody can do them any harm- no disease, no evil, no runaway train or roof falling in?

Giving in to The Fear is not compatible with the life my children deserve to live. They deserve to have adventures and make choices and walk to school without me keeping them on a lead. They don’t deserve to be the only kids at university whose mother installed a cctv camera in their halls of residence.

I got myself into this heart-outside-of-my-body business, so beyond the obvious safety measures, I have to just suck it up, keep loving and enjoying them, and be grateful for all the days I have with them, even the crappy ones (though if either of them ever gets into that extreme sport where you ‘fly’ down the side of a mountain with a bat-cloak as ‘wings’, I will stage an intervention, so help me God). And hope that when I eventually go, they are still around, and well and happy, to remember their silly old Mum who would scuttle away from the window when they arrived home, pretending she had not been stood watching for them.