I’ve always loved cemeteries. In London it was Highgate Cemetery that made the biggest impression on me, gothic and overgrown, and I also have good memories of exploring Brompton Cemetery. In Oxford I often went to Holywell Cemetery, to visit Walter Pater’s grave or drink absinthe at a birthday picnic (well, that only happened once). I know some people feel uncomfortable in cemeteries, but I’ve always found them to be a source of inspiration, and often more peaceful than parks.
And then there’s the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, also known the Cimitero Acattolico – the cemetery for non-Catholics/foreigners/poets. It was somewhere I’d long dreamt of visiting, and I remember reading an article in the newspapers years and years ago about how it was in danger of closing due to lack of money. I was upset by the thought that it might close before I ever got the chance to visit. Thankfully it’s still open (though struggling to survive, I imagine, and dependent on donations), and in a strange twist of fate I’m living just round the corner.
The most famous grave is also perhaps the only one without a name – Keats’s. Keats is buried next to Joseph Severn, the friend who looked after him in Rome in his final days. They’re in the old section of the cemetery, which is not quite the open field it was in Keats’s time, but it’s still feels very spacious – the graves are scattered rather than crammed together in rows, and the trees are spread out too. In the other section, separated by a wall, there’s a slope lined with cypresses and tombstones, weeping angels and memorials to the nineteenth century expats in Rome. Some of the dead are close to poor Keats’s age of 25, and it’s always sobering to visit cemeteries and think of how young they were.
It’s in this section of the cemetery, dense with trees and graves, that you can find Shelley’s grave. He’s at the top of the hill, beneath a tower, and his friend Trelawny is buried next to him. Trelawny’s tombstone would have you believe that they were best friends, which really isn’t true, but as Trelawny was also a friend of Byron and wrote about both poets, he’s a significant figure in the Romantic circle.
When I first visited the cemetery two years ago, it was as a kind of pilgrimage. I wanted to bring Keats and Shelley flowers, and read Adonais by their graves, which I did. I went three times, felt moved and inspired and utterly at peace. Shelley wrote, “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place”, and the atmosphere is still remarkably serene. I was surprised when I saw Keats and Shelley’s graves for the first time and didn’t feel particularly sad. They were both so young, and Keats’s life was so tragic. I usually get choked up just thinking about his last days in Rome. But somehow, when you’re in the cemetery it’s possible to transcend all the tragedy and to stop thinking of death as an ending. Instead, sitting beneath the umbrella pines on a warm day, it feels like everyone – living and dead – is just part of nature, some bigger mystery we’re not meant to understand. And with Keats and Shelley, at least, you can take consolation from the fact that they’re still loved and remembered, still inspiring people.
I know you’re not supposed to feel happy in cemeteries, but some of my happpiest, most peaceful moments have been spent by the poets’ graves, or sitting on a bench opposite the pyramid. Caius Cestius’s grave is the oldest in the cemetery, even pre-dating the Colosseum, though Thomas Hardy, more interested in Keats and Shelley, wrote “Who, then, was Cestius,/and what is he to me?”
While the pyramid is obviously impressive, I’m with Hardy, and some of the most intriguing tombstones actually belong to ordinary people. There are some epitaphs, dates and names that make you wonder….
I thought there had to be a story behind it, and there is:
In 1959, Charles Dark was working in an insurance office where he met Carol Ann Soan. The two 18-year-olds fell in love, although Carol was engaged to a possessive older man, 22-year-old Edmund Barber. She decided to call off the engagement to be with Charles, and asked Edmund to meet her for a private talk.
When Carol told Edmund she wanted to end their engagement, he asked for a farewell kiss. As he kissed her, he put his hands around her neck and choked her, then tied a cord tightly around her neck. She died of asphyxiation.
Heartbroken, Charles went to the Penzione Augusta, a hotel in Rome on the Via Nazionale, and took a fatal overdose of sleeping pills. It was his nineteenth birthday. Edmund Barber was arrested and convicted of Carol’s murder. He received three years in prison for manslaughter due to “emotional immaturity” and “diminished responsibility”.
It’s strange finally reading his story after a few weeks of speculating. I kept visiting his grave and wondering, thinking that I might write about him in a short story or novel one day.
Over the past couple of months I’ve also used the cemetery as a study – somewhere to read, write, and study Italian. It’s a beautiful place where I won’t get distracted, and a much nicer alternative to my depressing little bedroom. I’ve made a lot of progress on my novel while sitting on benches in the cemetery, to such an extent that I even included a brief allusion to the cemetery in one of my character’s dreams. Sadly, now the weather’s getting colder I won’t be able to write there any more, but next spring I can see myself returning to edit my novel, or maybe even start a new one.
For more information about the cemetery, visit their website. And if you’re feeling generous, donate!