Metro 140

Richard Herring: One thing in life is a dead cert

Wednesday 12 Nov 2014
My wife and I were passing Highgate cemetery and decided to pop in for a gander at the grave of Karl Marx. I just wanted to check that he was definitely dead. If any younger readers don’t know who Marx was, he was a guy who came up with all kinds of crazy ideas about politics and economics and sharing stuff out more fairly, so was very much the Nineteenth Century’s Russell Brand. Who will one day have a similar monument built to him, though in his case for recognition of his part in Adam Sandler’s Bedtime Stories.
Marx has two monuments (which seems a bit greedy and un-Communist): the famous one with his big head plonked on top of it, that makes it look like the grave of Father Christmas (do be sure to tell any children you see there that that’s what it is) and his original more humble (now cracked and barely legible) gravestone, down a muddy little path. They put the posh one up later because he was more successful posthumously than he was when he was alive. Posthumous success. The most useless kind.
I had pictured Highgate as the resting place for Victorians, but people are still being buried there. Among the more recently deceased was one of my comedy heroes, Douglas Adams. His simple memorial has a small pot in front of it where people have placed biros. It’s a terrific tribute.
My favourite plot belonged to Patrick Caulfield, an artist, of whom I was previously unaware, but who gave me a laugh because his self-designed memorial has the word “DEAD” artfully cut through it in huge capital letters. It’s funny because it’s true. It’s nice to see one of the corpses admitting what they are. Too many of them think they are resting or sleeping. You’re dead, you losers, get over it.
Then came a sudden, awful realisation. ‘We might be dead one day too,’ I commented to my wife, though she didn’t seem convinced. It doesn’t feel very likely while you’re alive, but then this cemetery is full of people who once felt confident that they would keep ploughing onwards. But ultimately they were all ploughed over.
A graveyard is a strange place. So significant to those who knew the deceased, but very soon those people will die too and the pain is passed on like a hot baton, as each individual ache eases, cools and disappears. We’re scrabbling to leave a mark that we existed, but there’s absolutely no point. Except to remind others yet to come, idly wasting a Sunday afternoon in the cemetery, that their lives are only significant in the moment.
I considered the future people who might pass by my gravestone (in the unlikely event that I have one – I suspect my dust will just blow on the breeze), give it a glance, wonder who I was, laugh at my name and ponder my epitaph. I thought of a cracker the other day, but forgot to write it down and have forgotten it. All I remember is that I knew it was the perfect epitaph. But maybe the perfect epitaph is, ‘He had the perfect epitaph, but forgot what it was.’
Who am I kidding? That’s nowhere near as good as Patrick Caulfield’s. He’s trumped us all. People are going to be looking and laughing at that and then feeling a bit weird and scared for decades and centuries to come. ‘I am dead. You will be soon. As will everyone you know. And then no one will care about you. Have a nice day.’