Hello all. Welcome to my very first interview. As a scientifically educated non scientist I find one of the most exciting things about blogging and researching is coming into contact with interesting people, whether they be immersed in science or not. I’m meeting the vast majority of people on Twitter, which is a hotbed of conversation, opinions and is also chock full of brain-sugar to rot your brain-teeth!
Sam Perrin is a fellow traveller I’ve bumped into on my travels. She currently resides in the United Kingdom and is a self confessed Londonphile, with a passion for history, but she is also a cemetery tour guide. Death is a fascinating thing, and so this sounds pretty damn interesting. Imagine the history beneath her feet! Find and follow her on Twitter:
A city or a nation is a living breathing thing. Neil Gaiman wondered what would happen if the living cities of the world ever woke up. It’s an interesting notion, and fits in well with my thoughts on emergence. Death and our rituals surrounding it are also part of this living fabric. Death is the result of careful evolution, and is a vital part of life. It’s not the end of things at all. Why else would cemeteries and other monuments to it exist? I got the chance to ask Sam about what she does….
Sam, you are a cemetery tour guide. This sounds self explanatory, but tell us about yourself, and exactly what it is you do.
Hi Ben, thanks so much for inviting me!
I’ve been a cemetery tour guide for the past 14 years. We introduce visitors to the cultural and historic treasure troves that are cemeteries by telling them about interesting people interred there, as well as discussing Victorian & Edwardian social history and funerary architecture.
Cemeteries hold a powerful fascination over many people for many different reasons. What about you? What draws you to what (on the outside) looks like a macabre occupation? How did you end up showing people around cemeteries?
Those who perceive cemetery tour guiding to be macabre or sinister are exactly the kind of people I love taking around on tour! The notion that what we do is morbid couldn’t be further from the truth: we celebrate the lives of those who’ve come before us, highlight their accomplishments and show people how much beauty – both natural and architectural – can be found in cemeteries.
I fell into this accidentally after volunteering at one of London’s “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries to help with the landscaping. At that time, the organisation had too many gardeners and suggested I try my hand at tour guiding instead. It was one of best decisions I’ve made as it combines three of my passions (history, architecture and wildlife) and I’ve made lifelong friends out of it.
Cemeteries are solemn places (or should be). Do people generally show respect when being showed around?
For the most part, yes. Most people are well behaved and genuinely interested in the cemetery’s history and landscaping. It’s about maintaining a balance between respecting grave owners and mourners while still enjoying an educational tour. The vast majority of visitors appreciate that and behave accordingly.
What’s the oddest epitaph you’ve ever seen?
One of my favourites is in Hampstead Cemetery (north London) and makes me laugh out loud. The memorial belongs to Charles Cowper Ross, “A Man of the Theatre” who died in 1985 and reads:
What will be said
When I am dead
of what I used to do?
They liked my smile?
I failed with style?
Or more than likely “Who?”
In the same cemetery, I recently discovered a headstone with an email address inscribed on it. That was a first for me!
That is a classic! An email address! I believe the email address ends with @heaven.net!
What’s the oldest grave you’ve ever seen?
Probably London’s Charterhouse, which was once used as a burial ground for victims of the plague back in the 14th century. It’s an amazing place and the sense of history there is almost tangible.
Australia has so little (European) history comparitively. Encountering that kind of age is always an experience. Have you come across any historic figures in your travels?
Absolutely! We’ve covered famous artists, actors, scientists, law makers, prime ministers, criminals, inventors, writers, engineers, pioneers, sports figures and musicians from the Victorian era through to the 21st Century. That said, I’ve found some ‘Regular Joes’ who led extraordinary lives to be just as (if not more) interesting than the more well known figures.
Now that would be worth exploring. Death has been called the great leveller. Every story means the same at the end, I guess.
Cemeteries and history are deeply intertwined. Can cemeteries teach us anything?
Sir William Gladstone summed it up perfectly: “Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals”. My tour guiding partner-in-crime (@SheldonKGoodman) often describes cemeteries as being ‘people museums’ and ‘libraries of the dead’ and I can’t think of more apt descriptions than those.
I’m in Australia, so obviously we have no cemeteries older than a couple of hundred years. Have you explored any graveyards outside of England? Tell us about them.
Funnily enough I visited Brisbane in April and spent two days in Toowong Cemetery – what a stunning place! It officially opened up in 1875 and is built into the slopes of Mount Coot Tha, which offers gorgeous views over the city. The landscaping is quite dramatic in that the plots are built into the undulating hills, which are quite steep in some parts. Something I immediately fell in love with was how beautifully preserved the ironwork surrounding some of the graves is! It’s one my favourite cemeteries. Next on my list are Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery, La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires and Sapanta’s Merry Cemetery (Romania).
I see you are interested in history, particularly that of London. A city can be seen as a living thing, and it’s history can be a powerful part of this. Free plug!: Tell us where we can find out more. Are there any organisations or groups where readers can explore and learn about the mysterious world of cemeteries?
Naturally I’m going to do a shameless plug here by mentioning @CemeteryClub! Also visit the websites of most cemetery Friends organisations and join any guided tours they offer. Cemetery Friends organisations are also usually crying out for volunteers, which is an excellent way of getting more actively involved. You can also support your local history society, library and archives, all of which are fantastic sources of information. Websites like Findagrave, Deceased Online and online newspaper archives are brilliant, as are most genealogy sites.
Sam, thank you so much for talking today!
Readers can follow Sam on twitter and her profile links to others involved in keeping history alive. Some of her partners in crime; see what they’re up to! Start with the Cemetery Club Blog:
Then see what they doing on Twitter