The Report of My Death was
I can’t claim to have much in common with the great Charles Dickens, whose bicentenary is celebrated this year, and whose novels transcend their time to make him as relevant today as he was in the Victorian era.
But one predilection we do share. Both of us were born with an inclination to stroll about graveyards.
They feature regularly in his work, from the “hemmed-in churchyard, pestiferous and obscene” of ‘Bleak House’ to the opening scene in ‘Great Expectations’, where seven-year-old Pip stands alone and weeping before the grave of his parents and five brothers.
Even the name Ebenezer Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol’ was cribbed from a headstone, although the original was Ebenezer Scroggie, described as a meal man – that that is a corn merchant – which Dickens misread in the fading light as a mean man. The error set his creative juices flowing.
The weekly magazine he edited, ‘Household Words’, contains his musings on visits to such gardens for the dead, where he copied down saccharine verses – Dickens never shied away from great dollops of sentiment – and made inquiries about some of the graves’ occupants. Like any writer worth their salt, he was always on the lookout for a ripping yarn.
But when you are as prolific as Dickens, with novels, plays, short stories, travel pieces and journalism gushing from your pen, your mind must bubble away constantly, which explains how he couldn’t simply meander round a graveyard, enjoying the peace and quiet.
Instead, he resurrected anonymous dead people, giving them a version of the everlasting life they were hoping for on the far side of the pearly gates.
Those headstones he paused to read acted like a cast list prompt …. with the undoubted advantage that the people itemised there were dead, and couldn’t be defamed. This allowed him to reinvent them as social climbers or spongers, hypocrites or hypochondriacs to his heart’s content. No fear of a libel case from, say, Ebenezer Scroggie – refashioned as the penny-pincher incarnate.
It was fortunate for Dickens that he never visited my hometown of Omagh, where a ramble round Drumragh graveyard might have exposed him to legal action, should he have pocketed a name for future use. In Omagh, you don’t have to be deceased to figure on a headstone.
Just the other day, I came across one stamped with the name of a man I know to be hale and hearty, with at least another 25 years to live if he reaches the Bible-allotted span of three score and ten. Let’s call him Lenehan.
There was no mistaking his identity on the marker, just as there was no mistaking my sight of him the previous week tucking into an all-day breakfast in Dunnes Stores’ café.
Some unlikely sights can be expected in a graveyard – Gandhi-esque tributes to people who were downright contrary in life – but this one was an eye-popper.
I stood and read. First came the name, plus birth and death dates of Lenehan’s father, followed by his mother, and finally Lenehan himself. The only indicator that he might not be mingling with the soil was the absence, beside his details, of the date he passed away.
I discovered this over-early addition to the gravestone was his mother’s idea – you might even consider it a last bequest. Lenehan is an only child, and she took it into her head that he might not have the money to pay for his own name to be recorded when the Grim Reaper gathered him up.
So she saved him the trouble.
I’d love to know how Lenehan feels about this accelerated pitch towards eternity. My guess is he can’t object particularly, or he wouldn’t have allowed the inclusion.
Presumably the stone carver ran it by him first, as next of kin. Otherwise, the mind boggles at the sort of instructions parents could leave, willy-nilly, in their wills.
When you think about it, a mother paying for her child’s name to go on the family slab, while the child in question is still alive and kicking, is simply parental prudence taken to the extreme. It’s not a million miles removed from urging your little lad to eat his greens and do his homework.
But what if the man in question decided, in time, that he wanted to be buried elsewhere? Or have his ashes scattered at sea? Would his name have to be deleted in the interests of truthfulness? It all seems a bit impetuous. Not to mention destroying my faith in the accuracy of headstones.
I daresay Dickens, with his gift for satire, would have made something memorable of Lenehan’s premature appearance on a headstone. But we need to cross the Atlantic rather than the Irish Sea for the wittiest use of it, where Mark Twain could have observed on his behalf: “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”