Memento Mori ~ New Calton

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I’m one among many ‘regulars’ at New Calton Burial Ground (link) – the steep central footpath of which is frequently my route on foot to St Andrew’s House bus stop, Edinburgh Station and to shopping, Princes Street Gardens and the many other delights of Edinburgh City Centre. And today I want to observe that this cemetery is a place full of life!

The oft-seen tombstone inscription Memento Mori – a call to remember the inevitability of death – succinctly encourages wonderers and wanderers to live life fully and well in the meantime. Locus iste – ‘this place,’ this well-lived life, hic domus Dei est et porta caeli – is surely ‘the home of God and the gate of heaven.’

Here lie the mortal remains of architects, authors, builders, clerics, craftsmen and engineers, medics, masons, statesmen, surgeons, tanners, ‘writers to the signet’ (later evolving into what we know as lawyers), parents, children, ‘high and low;’ and many of the tombs look like little roofless houses with lockable iron gates, originally overseen by watchmen of the tower – to curb the enthusiasms of grave robbers intent on supplying the nearby medical school, ‘without whom’ …

And all who come here are treated to a view of fabulously ever-changing sky, the Royal Palace of Holyroodhouse, one of the city’s first gas lamps, the modern Scottish Parliament buildings, and the remains of an extinct volcano that last erupted around 350 million years ago – which is to say, they encounter a living history lesson of huge proportions, supporting the growth of well-kempt lawns and flowers, together with literally thousands of opportunities to delve into history and research, all the while contemplating bustling modern life in Edinburgh today – on the way to buy groceries.

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James Spence, Writer to the Signet, 1818

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Memento Mori and a representation of human skull and bones in (unusual) naive art: ‘The Burrying Place of Jas. Strachan, Tanner’

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The tomb of Alexander Henderson, Merchant – with a now open gate

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The Palace of Holyroodhouse (left), Arthur’s Seat, the Scottish Parliament Buildings, and Salisbury Crags (right)

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And then ‘home by another way’ for me today. Walking past the Scottish Poetry Library there’s another invitation to pause, in pavement chalk:

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Living in tomorrow or perhaps yesterday
Or perhaps not in time, but not today
Here there were only three days in the week
And twenty minutes were a full hour

John Cornford

What is so full of life about this city, ancient and modern, is her perpetual invitation to remember, to dig deeper, to know a bit about the root and origins of many things, to stand on the shoulders of giants, to prick up one’s ears to the sound of distant bagpipes on the wind, and to thrive.

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