‘A good cemetery trumps a bog standard park any day of the week’Lauren Welsby-Riley

If you turn right at my front door, and right again at the end of the street, down the graffitied alley where a local teenage rapper films his music videos, and over the main road, you’ll come across one of the few parts of St Helens that could ever be described as tranquil: the cemetery. My favourite place in the world. On Google Maps, you can zoom out to see that the cemetery is shaped like a heart, which feels quite apt.

I think that a good cemetery trumps a bog standard park any day of the week. I know it sounds morbid, but think about it. Cemeteries have got all the perks of a park – fresh air, good dog-walking terrain, lovely natural scenery – but with the added charm of being a wee bit spooky. Admittedly, there are smaller churchyards and such that outdo my cemetery on the spookiness front (it’s all the Catholic guilt), but St Helens offers something for everyone. If decrepit, old-as-time monuments are your cup of tea, there’s a fifteenth century churchyard tucked away at the back that’ll blow your mind. Alternatively, if quiet reflection is more your bag, the Council has dotted some of these around the site quite recently too. There is even an area where children can be gently introduced to the idea of death by beloved fictional characters, such as Paddington, or Peter Rabbit.

“But how does a cemetery even become someone’s favourite place?” I hear all you graveyard cynics cry. The answer is simple, and maybe even a little boring: it was the fastest route to secondary school from my house. This meant that every morning at 8AM (usually running late) and every afternoon at 3PM, I followed the headstone-lined path that cuts through the cemetery. Spend that many days in any place, no matter how macabre, and you’ll grow fond of it eventually.

“Other people’s lives are just as important to them as mine is to me”

In many ways, St Helens Cemetery has been the backdrop for some of the most pivotal moments of my emotional development. I’ve done a lot of growing up there; it was in that place that I held hands with a girl for the first time, all cold, clumsy fingers and nervous giggles. It was there that I jogged during lockdown, a futile attempt at distraction from the crushing weight of COVID-era loneliness and isolation. And it was there that I first considered sonder, the idea that other people’s lives are just as important to them as mine is to me.

An ex-boyfriend once told me that I’m “so sensitive”, flinging the words in my direction as though they were intended to cut through me. At the time, I felt unspeakably embarrassed; how could it be that I was not, in fact, the Amy Dunne Cool Girl I had been trying so hard to portray myself as? But over time I began to wear my sensitivity like a tear-stained badge of honour. After all, it is because I am so sensitive that I can cry without shame when I see a headstone so uncared for that moss has obscured the text, or sit on a bench for three hours watching people carve time out of their day to visit the resting places of people they love.

“When I think of all the ways grief has shaped who I am, it seems obvious that I would find the most peace in a plot of land filled with dead people.”

As someone with a chronically overactive imagination, I’ve even found the cemetery to be a remarkably lucrative source of creative inspiration. Since the age of about 11, it has been my favourite activity to walk along the headstones, reading the names and deciding what kind of life they might have lived. Florence Thomas*, who died in 1998 at the age of 46, becomes, in my mind’s eye, a stunning blonde, with hair down to her bum, meticulously manicured nails, and magenta lipstick that always gets on her teeth. Maybe she played volleyball at university, where I imagine she studied something like business management, or communications. She, like me, once held hands with someone for the first time. In another place in another decade, she felt all the same butterflies I felt. Across the decades, I reach out to her, and we hold one another in an embrace of shared human experience.

However none of this explains the real reason for my obsession with cemeteries. The real reason, of course, is down to the names on the headstones which need no imagined backstories, because they’re names that I already know. Anyone who knows me knows that I am useless with directions, a complete navigational ignoramus. But if you asked me to draw a map to the resting places of the people I’ve lost, while blindfolded, I wouldn’t struggle at all.


Mountain View

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When you’re grieving, there’s a period of around five seconds every morning where you forget, and then remembering is just as crushing as receiving the news for the very first time. But being in the cemetery, so close to where they physically are, feels like a cheat code. When I’m sitting with them, I get to pass Go and collect $200, glossing over all of the pesky atheism that gets in the way of me believing that they can hear me talking to them. I watch my dog walk straight to the slab with their name written on it and sniff, and I allow myself to imagine that she, in her infinite canine wisdom, is saying hello too.

And so it really isn’t strange to me that when I’m happy, heartbroken, confused, or just bored, this is where I choose to go. When I think of all the ways grief has shaped who I am, it seems obvious that I would find the most peace in a plot of land filled with dead people.

*I made this name up, I promise I’m not in the business of doxxing dead people.