It’s not creepy, it’s research.

I like visiting graveyards. Some people think this is morbid of me. They suspect perhaps that I’m scouting for possibe monuments for my own passing, or wishing to dwell on the End of Things, especially since, as an atheist, I really don’t believe I have an afterlife to either look forward to or dread.

Others share my enthusiasm, like my friend Katherine who recently accompanied me on two visits to the Box Hill cemetery in search of a couple of gravestones. Two visits were required because we couldn’t find DJ Dennis or Cyril Callister the first time round. Luckily, on the second visit we bumped into some members of the Friends of the Cemetery who knew just where we could find them.

But seriously, I don’t find graveyards morbid. Sometimes they are very sad, especially the graves of children. Most graves are meaningful only to the families of the deceased. Sometimes, though, a little part of the person’s story is left behind for random strangers like me.

And that’s one of the pleasures of the graveyard for me. These places mark the end of everyone’s story, eventually (or, if you’re a believer, the end of volume one and the beginning of the sequel). From time to time, a little of that story is shared.

In Box Hill, Katherine and I found the grave of a woman from Brighton who had been a keen gardener. We knew this because her epitaph referred to her devotion to her garden and the joy she and her neighbours gained from her gifts with plants. Beneath the headstone, her grave contained a little panorama of plants and a bluebird made of porcelain, shielded under clear perspex. I never knew this woman, but for a moment I shared and understood her love of growing things, and sharing that love with her community.

The purpose for the visit was to take pictures for entries in a new iPhone app project I’m working on, so, see, research, like I said. Dennis and Callister were my destinations.

CJ Dennis’s grave bears a quote from one of his poems, and it was pleasant to spend a moment reflecting on the legacy of The Sentimental Bloke and his other works which I”m yet to read. At Cyril Callister’s grave, I took a moment to be thankful for Vegemite, which he invented, on which so many Australian children have grown up and which gave me a taste of home when I needed it while living on foreign shores.

It has to be said, as an editor in my day job, it’s also an occupational hazard that I spotted a typo on stone. I don’t believe in an afterlife or ghosts, but I swear I’ll come back to haunt anyone who carves a spelling or grammatical error into my final resting place.

Graves can be sad; they can even be morbid. I find them melancholy but restful, a reminder that every life, however, brief, has it’s own story, filled with love, drama, tragedy and joy. It’s a reminder that every story ends and that I want to fill mine with love, adventure, friends, exploration and the unexpected.

In case you’re wondering, if I end up with a headstone (rather than cremated and kept in a pretty jar) I’d like my epitaph to read: Here lies Narrelle Harris. Full stop.”


  • Mandy

    We live about 100 metres from our country town cemetery, where my own father happens to be buried. My kids play amongst the headstones, we take note of new arrivals, pity and wonder about those who have no family to mark their graves, and read every new epitaph as new stones are erected. For my mum, it’s become her hobby as she tends to Dad’s garden grave. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who think we’re morbid, hanging out in the graveyard, but I love it – it’s a fascinating, peaceful and thoughtful space. We’ve even been known to share a few err… ales there on special family occasions!

    • And why not? Raising a glass to a loved one is a fine thing, and to do so in the presence of their memory is perfectly reasonable. I think being in touch with the whole of iife, including the finish, is healthy. It’s obsessing with one particular part of the process which isn’t good for us. Death comes and it’s never easy, but perhaps it could be slightly less mysterious and frightening.

      I agree that cemeteries can be wonderful places for quiet and reflection. It’s a reminder that, for all our worries today, this is where we’ll all be in the long run, and it’s what we do between now and then that will make a difference to ourselves, to people we love and to complete strangers, even. It’s good to stop and think ‘Am I doing what I want to be doing? If not, how can I live more of the life I want to have lived when my time comes?’ That’s the kind of reflection that can lead us to finding jobs that make us more fulfilled, doing more volunteer work, spending more time with famiy and friends, getting onto that creative project or those travel bookings or that uni course we always meant to do.

      By thge way, have you read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book? Living so intimately with a graveyard, you might appreciate it. πŸ™‚

  • dragonsally

    You teach me such wonderful things.

    I wonder whether the family had to pay for that gravestone…

    • They may not have noticed the error. I don’t hold the general public to the same standards as I do writers. It’s just an occupational hazard these days that I notice all the errors!