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Is there life after death?

posted 27 Jun 2015, 07:18 by Fran Brady

This piece was inspired by a visit to the Dean Cemetery in Edinburgh which opened in the 1840’s. Many famous residents of Scotland's capital rest there, nearly all men.
Women rest there too, of course, but only as mere afterthought scribbles on the imposing monuments and gravestones.
And there are lots of children.

Taken from one headstone:

Alexander Allan died age 87
His wife, Jemima Younger, died age 87
Their first born, Jessie, died aged 11 days
Their third son, George, died 4 yrs 11 mths
Their fifth son, Alexander, died 2 yrs 11 mths


The graveyard is spacious and well-tended. The paths between the rows of monuments and headstones are more like avenues. Streets of the dead. My world. I have known no other world. Indeed, I was only eleven days old when I first came. I played my childish games on its grassy expanses, sat nursing my growing pains on its flat stone slabs and have seen it become famous for its many prestigious residents. I have wandered these cool, shady lanes for nearly two hundred years.
What a disappointment I was to my parents! Their first born to die so soon. Mother was heartbroken. Father bore it more easily. After all, I was only a girl. There would be plenty more babies, he said. Sons, hopefully. He was right about the babies. There were ten more in the next twenty years. He nearly gave up on the sons, though, because the next four were all girls.
Mother wept and prayed, made extravagant vows to God and excessive donations to The Kirk. At last, nine years after my birth, came the longed-for son. How they celebrated! On the day of his christening party, the house was filled with guests, mostly colleagues of Father, fellow lawyers, and the kind of people they worked with: businessmen, accountants, politicians, ministers, doctors and the like. There were women too, sitting together in one room, talking trivia - like babies and house management - while the men in another room talked weighty, manly things, like electoral reform and the Chartist movement.
The wives wore big, stiff dresses that took up nearly three chairs. I am quite glad that I never became a live woman and had to stuff my body into whalebone corsets and surround it with mountainous skirts. As for the things they put on their heads! Bonnets, they called them, Hideous! My hair has never been tied up, plaited or stuffed into horrible hats. Like my body, it has always been free and unfettered. I love the rush of wind through my body and hair as I race through the avenues of my world.
After that, all the babies were boys and two of them came to join me here in the family plot which Father had bought a few years before my birth. He must have guessed it would be needed long before he himself was ready for it.
George, the third son, nearly made it in the other world. He was a fine strapping lad, large of foot and voice. A bit clumsy and slow to learn but strong and healthy. Or so they thought. That winter of 1841, when diphtheria swept through the town and doctors were run off their feet, many families lost sons. Daughters, too, probably.
Father was furious and redoubled his efforts to produce more boys than girls. He might have declared himself satisfied with five (four alive) if Alexander, the fifth son, had not taken it into his head to come and join George and me. He was only just short of his third birthday but had been a sickly child all along, often struggling for breath, always coughing, finally drowning in his own blood as it rushed into his infantile lungs. Truly, he was better over here on this side. He was never going to make much of it in the living world.
But, of course, Father didn’t see it like that. He was furious and frightened. The odds must be evened up. He must have another son. Several, if possible, just in case. Mother, at forty, was beginning to find pregnancy and childbirth a lot more onerous but she knew they must have at least four living sons to match the four daughters. She bravely bore him another son. She knew better than to waste precious time with any more daughters. The pregnancy was a time of repose and seclusion (doctor’s orders) during which my sisters became little mothers to our three brothers.
Father was for pressing on to create a few reserves in case of further defections from the boys’ side but the doctor was firm. It would probably be the death of Mother, he said. This alone might not have swayed Father but the doctor was smart. He added that it was unlikely that any more babies would survive birth, certainly not any more males. Girl babies might have a better chance. ‘New research . . .’ he murmured. Oh, the wily old doctor! Mother had much cause to be grateful to him.
George and I had seven happy years together before Alexander coughed and spluttered his way into our home. We exchanged one resigned glance and slipped into loco parentis. ‘Bringing up Alex’ became the name of the game for the next fifty years. He is still a pallid, sickly type, always moping around, needing years more sleep that we do. But creative, I have to give him that. The soul of a poet, always composing verses about sunsets over the Castle and moonlight on the Water of Leith, hanging out with the literary types in the cemetery rather than the soldiers-fallen-in-action whom George admires and the writers-to-the-signet whose company I enjoy. I am my father’s daughter, after all. Not that I, a mere girl, would have been able to pursue my interest in law in the living world.
Thanks to the wily doctor, Mother lived to a ripe old age and Father had to be content with two equal teams and no numerical superiority for the males. They had every other advantage, of course. The finest Edinburgh schools, then Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrews and Edinburgh Universities. They became: a Queen’s Counsel, whose judgements are written up in legal textbooks on precedents; a professor of mathematics whose work on continuous number theory is legendary; a successful member of parliament who held a post in Disraeli’s cabinet; and a surgeon who pioneered ground-breaking operations on the limbs of deformed children. The girls had very little education and were married off young. Two died in childbirth.
Mother came first to the Dean Cemetery, at the age of 87, and greeted us with joy, especially me. I was, after all, her first-born and she had never seen me so much as hold out a hand to her. The boys she had at least known as little children running round her skirts. She had kept me in her heart for sixty-odd years and I her in mine. We soon became inseparable. So when Father came a year later, we let him and the boys get on with it. There was no more room in the family plot so the others had to find somewhere else.
Mother and I are happy together and the boys are delighted to be with Father. And he is happy with his family at last: George, Alexander and Jessie. The score is two to one.