Awarded Superior in Literary Arts
There is no correct way to eat ice cream in a graveyard. Too solemn, and you’re not enjoying the ice cream. Too enthusiastic and you disturb the “resting in peace.” The graveyard ice cream cone is a lesson in sacrilege and saccharine.
I find that British graveyards are ideal for ice cream consumption. My old home in Oxford happens to have a robust population of ancient churches, each surrounded by a sprawling, ancient graveyard. These churchyards are tranquil, frequented only by ambulatory old British couples, young students cutting through on the way to school, and one strange American family eating copious amounts of dairy. Being a member of said family, my young sister’s favorite activity is playing hide and seek behind the mossy headstones. She is dedicated to finding grave markers with her name, Elizabeth, on them. The vast majority of old, dead British women are named Mary, Catherine, or Elizabeth, so it’s not a challenge. On occasion, Lizzy has gleefully announced that she found an “Annie grave,” and taken me by the hand to show me. A joke about my impending demise inevitably ensues. I have a feeling that Lizzy will enjoy my funeral. Apparently, if you associate ice cream and playtime with graveyards, you don’t get too scared of death. It’s a funny attitude for a kid who’s still scared of going to the bathroom with the door closed.
I have high hopes that young Elizabeth will become a well-adjusted adult with a healthy attitude towards mortality. In light of this, my theory is that exposure to cemeteries ought to start young. Evidently, the Brits agree with me. During my one year in a British elementary school, I was unexpectedly taken to a cemetery on a field trip. We were reading George’s Marvelous Medicine by Roald Dahl, and, apparently, in a British school, the logical next step is bringing twenty young children to stand quietly by his grave. It enhances the education to know that even your favorite author will eventually succumb to an unspecified infection. Remarkably, the overwhelming response to this revelation was a resounding, “jolly good,” from parents and children alike. After we had paid our respects to the late Mr. Dahl, we departed in a bus, where several students proceeded to puke. Apparently the British have weak stomachs for everything but death. To quote Sam the Eagle, “It is times like these that I am proud to be an American.”
I have found that the British are generally unperturbed by cemeteries. Whether this is due to their relative abundance or the general self-possession of the Brits, I don’t know. I suppose that in a country with such a rich history, the reality of death is just a constant awareness. One day you’re churchgoing, and the next you’re six feet under said church with an assortment of other ancient corpses, just around the corner from an ice cream shop.
Anyone familiar with history will note that England has experienced its fair share of disease and ensuing death (the Black Death, cholera, smallpox, typhoid, etc.). Such ailments have necessitated the rapid expansion of graveyards and even the creation of new ones. A common English legend is that every time the Underground (known as the Tube) stops suddenly, it’s because you’re near a mass grave from the time of the Plague (unfortunately, I have yet to find a way to procure an ice cream cone while on the Tube, even if it does happen to be stopped). I am convinced that the entire history of England can be learned from a graveyard jaunt. Noting names, dates, proximity, and even flowers can give a detailed picture of the wars, diseases, and prosperity that have shaped Great Britain.
I must have visited dozens of graveyards during my time in England, and consumed thousands of calories of ice cream. However, the memory that I most frequently exhume is not of a churchyard, but a cholera graveyard. We came across said cemetery while going for a stroll through a neighborhood called Jericho in Oxford, England. Oxford is remarkable in that walking down one wrong alleyway and you are lost in a maze of either stone graves or drunk students. Jericho is no exception. A quick right off of a bustling street took my family to an expansive cemetery, surrounded on every side by sleek glass and brick buildings. Signs around the graves told of the toll of cholera and war on Oxford, and the subsequent creation of the St. Sepulchre’s cemetery. The cemetery was enchanting. The moss and grass stood out in vibrant shades of green against the granite monuments, and the ground was soft and muddy from morning rain. My eyes found the grave of a boy that died at my exact age. Maybe it was that I was living through a pandemic, or that the setting was overwhelmingly lovely, or that England had warmed my heart to graveyards, but I shook my head and walked off.
We wove our way through countless graves in various states of disrepair. Some of the above-ground coffins were quite shattered. It appeared that a dramatic symptom of cholera was eventually turning into a zombie. I suddenly became aware of the sound of dishes being washed and light chatter. As absorbed as I was in carefully reading the worn gravestones, I had forgotten that we were surrounded by the living. With this realization, I had the fleeting temptation to return to the graveyard at night, dressed in a long, white nightgown, caked in zombie makeup and dried blood. I could see myself wandering through the graveyards slowly until some unsuspecting resident happened to stick their head out of one of the sleek glass windows. I shook off the thought. However amusing the prospect of such a prank was, I knew that if I was convincing enough, they might just try to bury me without so much as an ice cream cone to keep out the chill of the grave.
I guess it was a strange sort of comfort to see all the graves, as odd as that may sound. But, in the middle of a seemingly endless pandemic, the contrast of old stone and smooth glass was a macabre reminder that life goes on. In a sleek modern world, it seems as if the world is coming to an end when our modern knowledge doesn’t solve every problem. Being as privileged as I am, I had focused so narrowly on the mundane details of daily life that I had lost that awareness of death that I felt as a second-grader at Roald Dahl’s grave. England is truly magical in that years of life and death seem to meld effortlessly. Steel shelters mossy stone, protecting and enshrining our shared mortality. Graveyards and ice cream are in contrast, but not opposition. They are the unity of life and death, youth and age. The hilarity of a graveyard ice cream cone is tempered only by the knowledge that life melts away as both stickiness and sweetness.
Through all my savoring of life, my main goal is to stave off death until someone can create a gravestone that also functions as a soft-serve ice cream dispenser. I intend for my posterity to reflect on life and death with the comfort of a graveyard ice cream cone.