Bushbury Crematorium and Cemetery are situated on a hill not far from the end of the 511 bus route, which is how we get there. We used to be able to see the hill from the top floor of our house, some miles away, a long whale’s back of green rising from acres of low-cost suburban housing, with what looked like a single line of trees along the spine. My sister remembers three, I’m not so sure. The place was pointed out to us by our parents, perhaps by our aunt, who lived in that room in a bedsit designed for her by my father – her final refuge, as things turned out. Now that we’re here again, and walking round, it’s clear that what seemed a single file of pines, top-tufted like the maritime pines along the consular roads out of Rome, is a number of carefully spaced out woods, the trees planted in lines in a grid-like arrangement, leaving space for the odd memorial bench or upstanding plaque.
The cemetery has grown with time, the oldest deaths at the centre, more recent ones spiralling out like an image of a newly-born galaxy, a swirl of marble slabs placed one against the other, shoulder to shoulder, each with its name and date and motto, each with its container for flowers. Some of these have a sort of metal top, like a waffle, with holes for the stalks. Other slabs, either older or more modest, have improvised vases, the most common being Steradent tubes, the perfect size for a single rose. Generally, the outer slabs are in better shape than the ones at the heart, the deaths still recent enough to warrant weekly visits, fresh bouquets. A spray of yellow roses has been pushed into the earth at a short distance from the path, it’s not clear for whom. The roses are artificial. My sister wipes my father’s stone clean. We haven’t brought flowers because we don’t want to think of them dying; we talked with our mother about the virtues of artificial flowers, but decided, in the end, to do without. The stone wiped clean, my sister darts off towards one of the trees, returning with a sprig of oak leaves.
Coming down one side of the hill is a swathe of stones laid so tightly against one another that the impression they give is of a wide grey road, an uninterrupted sweep of paving slabs. It’s hard to see how people can visit their dead without treading on others’. Yet somehow they manage, performing a jittery respectful dance between one stone and the next, leaving their elderly relatives at the kerb or alone, in parked cars, as close as they can drive. On the other side of the cemetery, as we leave for home, are the graves of children. These are decorated as if for a party, with massive paper flowers and grinning dolls that come up to my waist and rain-sodden teddy bears. The impression they make is undeniably poignant, but also creepy, as though the bereaved one’s attempt to recall the innocence, the playfulness, of the child had been subverted into schlock.