We decided that Easter Monday would be a good day to consecrate the graveyard. The house was still full of ecumenical friends who wouldn’t have soul issues, but could bring sufficient solemnity to the occasion. By ‘consecrate’, I mean declaring something sacred, not dedicating to a religious purpose. All the same, garden visitors wandering through the gate might be confused by so many wooden crosses dotting this shady, enclosed space. It looks like a recent rural tragedy.
In fact, the crosses are a sad testament to the haphazard nature of our animal husbandry. The most recent cross marks the grave of Derrick, our Norfolk Black turkey, blessed with curiosity, humour and playfulness. His last game was a session of ice hockey on the garden pond, but the mild winter meant the frozen surface could not support his 34lb heft. He is buried next to my quartet of call ducks who met a more commonplace doom: they were killed by a fox. Beneath the fresh mound is a lamb rejected by her mama. Another cross presides over the remains of my most majestic peacock who died in the middle of the total solar eclipse in August 1999.
Against the backdrop of handmade crosses and walls of yew hedge punctuated with columns of Irish yew are three new oak headstones with handcarved lettering. Like the graveyards of my youth, these more significant although pure and simple ones mark the greater status: long-lived and long-loved dogs and cats. The first one reads: ‘Adam, Noble dog, 1982?1996’. Adam, my dowry and my husband’s first dog. After a happy childhood on Putney Heath, he became a country dog, learned to retrieve pheasants, and became the loving companion of the cat who rests beside him.
‘Pushkin, Self-made cat’. Pushkin who lived wild in the potato harvester before making her way up to the Big House, showing feline canniness by making friends with the Only Child, then aged two. Within six months, she was napping along side Adam in front of the Aga and sleeping on the foot of our bed. I’ve never subscribed to the phoney belief that folks are either cat people or dog people: I love both.
Still, I suspect that Adam was sometimes homesick for Putney Heath. He had more friends there, including a black lab called Tatler, whose owner, the distinguished soldier, Gen Sir Henry Leask, gave valuable advice to a devoted band of female dog walkers. The General’s deepest wish was for a heaven where he would be reunited with the horses and dogs of his life, a sentiment in line with Texan Joe Murray who wrote: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to arrive in heaven and find that the angels are dogs, that the dogs we had in our life on Earth had been our guardian angels’.
I’m definitely of the Murray-Leask school on this, but go one further: I want to be buried beside my dogs. The Wyken grave-yard is no ‘pet cemetery’, but a family graveyard. I’m okay about boxes of ashes, wicker coffins whatever is environmentally correct at the time but, on the grounds that I have been too scattered all my life, I don’t want my ashes scattered over fields or sea.
The Wyken graveyard makes my husband a little nervous. I overheard him telling Simon the gardener that ‘it’s a Southern thing’ so I’m waiting a while before showing him the design for the lych gate. Simply carved on its gothic arch: ‘A Living Dog is Better than a Dead Lion’ Ecclesiates 9:4.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on April 20, 2006.