Desmond O’Neill: A grave beauty

Desmond O'NeillWhen visiting a city for the first time, graveyards rarely feature high on my agenda. So, little did I suspect that a very beautiful graveyard would be one of the aesthetic highlights of a recent short stay in Portland, Maine, a compact and attractive port city with interesting French influences. My host, the founder of the most innovative alternative transportation system for older people, ITNAmerica, had also been a prime force in saving and restoring Evergreen cemetery, one of a handful of landscaped garden cemeteries in the world.

Similar to Père Lachaise in Paris, Abney Park in London, and Mount Auburn near Cambridge, Massachusetts, these early nineteenth century cemeteries represent a romantic revolt against serried ranks of graves in the sectarian settings of churchyards. They are designed to honour the dead in a beautiful setting which also comforts the living and welcomes them into the imaginatively landscaped park. And so it is in Evergreen, with attractive vistas of rolling meadows, ancient trees, and a range of extraordinary grave statuary. Even on a snowy winter afternoon, many Portlanders and their dogs were walking through the 239 acres of parklands, a remarkable and easeful juxtaposition of the living and the dead in a greyscale palette of white snow, dark trees, and varying funerary greys.

This experience had a powerful effect on me, leading to reflection on how much more common the experience of death must have been for these earlier generations, of its greater salience in everyday life. It is an overly simplistic cliché to suggest that present generations do not like to talk of death—in my practice, I find that patients, families, and staff talk quite readily of death when it is near. Much more to the point is the fact that death has, thankfully, become much less common an experience in everyday life, and with it we have lost some fluency, as beautifully expressed by Wallace Stevens in his Emperor of Ice Cream.

These beautiful havens of tranquility work at a number of levels, providing an amenity, a shared space between the living and the dead, a wonderful monument to a different perspective on death, and a repository of graves of the famous from many walks of life. Their ongoing role as cemeteries also remains, so that the bereaved do not find themselves solely in the company of the grieving, but also of respectful fellow citizens enjoying the park.

Perhaps educators in medical schools in cities fortunate enough to have access to landscaped garden cemeteries—London, Paris, Harvard, and Portland, to name but a few—might encourage a joining of forces between their departments of medical humanities, palliative care, and other interested clinicians and arrange tours to experience and reflect on not only death and dying, but perhaps more importantly, death and the living, across the centuries.

Desmond O’Neill is a consultant physician in geriatric and stroke medicine in Dublin, and is a member of the external advisory panel of the age friendly university initiative.