Charles Emerson: “I grew up in Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol.”

Photograph: Charles Emerson for the Guardian

When I was growing up, my father said I should keep a diary on me at all times with my name and address inside. “People won’t believe you live here otherwise,” he said. So inside, under my name, I carefully wrote: “Address: Arnos Vale Cemetery, Bristol.”

Arnos Vale is a 45-acre Victorian cemetery, created in 1837. It was quite something when it was built, with sweeping green lawns and white classical buildings. My grandfather William Utting arrived from Walsall in 1908 to be its superintendent. Thanks to him, Arnos Vale was the first cemetery outside London to do cremations. Later, his son Alfred, my father, took over. I was born in 1943, the third generation to live at the cemetery. I stayed there for 30 years.

It was a busy place with more than 30 staff; it was spotless, with rose bushes and finely clipped lawns. My father supervised the funeral services and there were gravediggers, grasscutters and a shire horse. Both sets of my grandparents lived there, too.

But it was an adult world. My sister Elaine didn’t come along till I was 10. I spent a lot of time on my own playing in the cemetery on my bike. I’d look for conkers. Sometimes I’d visit the gravediggers in their cabin. They’d share their cheese and onion sandwiches with me. They were nice men; one of them read Nietzsche.

It wasn’t a frightening place to live. If anything, it was full of kindness and respect. You can’t grow up in a cemetery and not want to be kind. I’ve seen grief since I was little; I’ve got a sixth sense for when people are suffering. I hate cruelty, and I’m slightly nonconformist, unsurprisingly. My father was a good man, very reassuring, but sometimes his job got to him. If he’d been at a difficult funeral, I’d see him slip a bit of whisky into a cup of tea.

He wasn’t keen on me taking over. “You’ve had enough of death,” he said. So I worked as a railway signalman, then as a postman. But I still came home to the cemetery all through my 20s. My parents didn’t charge me rent and I could play my records as loudly as I liked: why would I leave?

It was my job to make sure the cemetery was empty before locking the gates. If I found an amorous couple, I’d pop up from behind a gravestone with a torch held under my face as a prank. Only once or twice, mind.

Not everyone shared my sense of adventure. Once, I invited a girl home to listen to music. We were walking together and she asked where we were going. I pointed over the cemetery walls and said: “In there.” She ran off and never came back.

I met Margaret at a party. When I told her I lived in the cemetery, she walked off unimpressed, thinking I was pulling her leg. I ran after her and showed her my diary with my address inside. That convinced her. We fell in love, I moved out and we got married. Now we have two grown-up sons and a five-year-old granddaughter. We left Bristol six years ago and live in Wales.

Towards the end of my father’s career, the cemetery suffered. It wasn’t invested in properly, it changed hands too many times and it became neglected. By the 1980s, it was in a bad way, covered with brambles and trees that damaged the graves and made access difficult. Happily, it was rescued by a charity, which undertook a major restoration. Now it’s a place of rest, a place to walk the dog; it’s an oasis in a busy city, and still a working cemetery. The trees and brambles remain, but there are also masses of primroses, owls, wildlife. There’s a sense of renewal.

After I retired, I started volunteering here. I come from Wales every Friday to do my bit. I sit in the main office, below the room where my father was born, and welcome people and answer phones. Friends drop in. Sometimes I take schoolchildren around and show them where I used to play. I haven’t yet planned where I’ll end up after I die. But seeing as my sister’s ashes are here, next to my grandparents, I expect there’ll always be a bit of me here, too.

As told to Nicola Skinner


Author: Howard Utting

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