Dead at no age

A memorable figure, all in black. His thick black hair was Brylcreemed to one side, his glasses had thick black frames, his old suit was a black jacket and trousers, his pushbike had a heavy black frame and dynamo-powered lights. Working on a local farm, he was a familiar sight around the village. He seemed of an indeterminate age, if asked, it would have been difficult to guess. It was hard to imagine that he had not always been in the village, that there was not a period during the previous decades when he had not pedalled from the farm to home and from home to the pub. Everyone knew him, a gentle and quiet man. The only clue to the fact that he was not as old as might have been imagined was that his mother was still alive, a quick tempered woman who was easily irritated by small boys.

News of his death must have passed me by. Had I been asked, I would have thought that he must have reached a ripe old age, that his farming days must have come to an end and that he must have reached the days of austere leisure offered by the government old age pension. A tough man, a strong man, a man who never drove, a man for whom a bicycle seemed an extension of himself, his fitness alone must have brought him to the three score years and ten, the par score by which country life was assessed. 

Walking along a row of graves in the village cemetery, there seemed a sequence of names for which it was possible to close the eyes and imagine their faces. There was the gently timid man who had been the village shopkeeper and even gentler wife. Nearby there was a farmer renowned for the quality of the vegetables he grew, and the strength of the cider he made, and generously shared with callers. Then there was the grave of the black-suited man on the black bicycle.

Reading the dates inscribed on the headstone of the grave was a surprise, 1934-1986. Surely, that cannot have been correct? Surely, he had been far older? Imagination would have given him at least twenty years more. Dead at fifty-two years of age. 

It was strange to imagine that he was six years younger than I am now, strange to imagine that my first memories of him were of a man who in his mid-thirties. Strange to think that he was dead at no age.

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5 Responses to Dead at no age

  1. The Blocked Dwarf says:

    Don’t want to consider my own mortality at this late hour, so here a couple of ‘fun’ facts about graveyards that my Ol’Dad, a church warden whose bailiwick includes supervision of the boneyard, told me; it being a very rural benefice deep in deepest darkest Norfolk the church still buries people in its graveyard. I’m sure you, Ian, know these if you were ever a rural parish priest but maybe your other reader(s)won’t, as I didn’t.
    First off GRAVES MOVE! Seriously they do, to the extent that the warden nowadays records the exact position of each new grave with GPS. Apparently we the laity in such matters would be amazed at just how far a grave can move.
    Second fun fact: Some places, as at my Dad’s church, graves are still dug by hand. A little man with a little van turns up (everything in Norfolk is traditionally done by a man in a bakers van) with a spade. Sometimes, if his back is bad, he brings his wife along to help. They mark off, dig and within less time than you might think, there is a perfect grave. My Dad said watching the two of dig is an experience.

    • Ian says:

      Graves always intrigued me!

      When I was in rural Co Down, a great deal of recycling of graves took place! The bones of those from former generations would be dug up to allow for a new interment, left in plastic fertiliser bags, they would be tipped back into the grave when it was filled.

      Digging by hand would have been the norm in my last parish. For some people, the old custom was observed of the grave being dug by friends and neighbours- a wonderfully touching tradition.

  2. The Blocked Dwarf says:

    “For some people, the old custom was observed of the grave being dug by friends and neighbours- a wonderfully touching tradition.”

    I wonder what the Church’s Health and Safety, Safeguarding and Child Protection Officer had to say about that…..just think….someone might have used an non-approved variety of spade or failed to apologise to the turf before lifting it.

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