|In time, all gravestones will be forgotten. |
Yet, given the immortal nature of his writing,
I'm sure James Herriot's grave would be well cared-for,
had he desired to be buried.
The priest who introduced me to the work of Charles Williams told me several times that he had a photograph to show me. We had journeyed through Descent Into Hell together, one of Williams’ later novels, and I found so many aspects of the novel that were thought provoking and inspirational. I later read another of Williams’ novels, and two books about his life, and those were also meaningful experiences. Finally, I visited the priest in his office one weekday, and he showed me a photograph of the gravestone he had visited in Oxford. I stared at the great author’s name, etched into the stone, and felt…nothing.
In “The Proper Role of Fiction” and “The ‘Hunter’ of My Memories” I spoke about the death of my father. I haven’t visited his grave many times in the last two decades (largely because I live so far away now), but when I’ve stood over his gravestone, my physical nearness to his mortal body evoked memories of the special times we had shared. I felt his presence there in a way I didn’t feel at home, or for that matter, anywhere else.
For a long time now, James Herriot has been a part of my life. The characters portrayed in the TV show “All Creatures Great and Small” live in my mind, feed my imagination, and occasionally, even inhabit my dreams. I only started reading his books this year, but his flowing prose, the way he disguises people, events, and places, and the way he shapes incidents into chapters that could also function as stand-alone stories, soon held me entranced. As an aspiring writer, I’ve never really understood what makes short fiction tick. Yet his writing is beautiful, conversational, and structurally sound. If I could, I’d dearly love to replicate his style and form in my own writing career.
As I’ve fallen in love with him as a storyteller, I enjoyed exploring the city of Thirsk, and the places that he loved so much. Yet I found myself wishing for something more: to visit his grave. This was impossible, as he was not buried, but cremated, and his ashes scattered to the winds.
Cremation is foreign to my family traditions, even though, in many ways, it seems a logical choice. Why bury a body in the ground? It only takes up land that could be used far more profitably in other ways. If my father had been cremated, and his ashes placed in a container, I could visit my father, so to speak, every time I visit my mother. Alf Wight (who wrote under the pseudonym of James Herriot) had a perfect right to be cremated, and for his ashes to be scattered over his beloved Yorkshire, if that was what he wished. Yet, when one becomes a public figure, someone beloved by thousands or even millions, shouldn’t one consider the thoughts and feelings of all those who might someday wish to visit one’s final resting place?
I know I am not alone in this. A quick Internet search reveals similar stories of people who visited the places James Herriot lived. Like me, they also sought the place where his ashes were scattered. Although reports vary, most point to a particular ridge in the North York Moors, one he called “The Finest View in England.” So, before we left Thirsk to continue our exploration of Yorkshire, we had another reason to visit this nearby national park. I didn’t know what I would find there, or what I would feel when I visited this particular area. I just knew I had to make the pilgrimage.
Pursuing an inexplicable goal,
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