The seductive powers of sacred places
The oldest churchyard in Torquay is being used by people openly having sex and sunbathing nude in broad daylight. This was how it was reported in the local newspaper, of course — ‘broad daylight’ is a phrase that is only ever used by subeditors trying to make things sound more depraved. (Who sunbathes except in broad daylight?) It was not the first such report since the pandemic began: in June, a couple were witnessed coupling in Brandwood Cemetery in Kings Heath, Birmingham; police were called amid concerns over public indecency, and fears that they may not even have been from the same household. A few weeks earlier, another pairing was witnessed in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene, Sutton-in-Ashfield.
It is tempting to assume that these cases are a product of the pandemic. After all, there was a similar spate of graveyard sex during the Black Death: prostitutes solicited in cemeteries and orgies were held amongst the graves. It was so bad in Champfleur, France, that a papal official had to threaten excommunication for anyone indulging in ‘unseemly acts’ on churchyard graves. In the aftermath of war, too: in Naples immediately after liberation, according to Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44, it was so commonplace to have sex on gravestones that it became an embarrassing breach of etiquette to greet someone on the bus route to the cemetery.
But people don’t only have sex in graveyards when their world is overturned by pandemic or war. Since Roman times — when Martial observed that funerary monuments hid the filthiest prostitutes — the cemetery has been a place for transgressive sex. And not just for Goths (Pčre Lachaise had to introduce a code of conduct after fans kept having sex on Jim Morrison’s grave), or Gothic writers (Mary Shelley reputedly lost her virginity on her mother’s gravestone in St Pancras cemetery), or plain weirdos like Yeats’s Maud Gonne, who tried to conceive a second child in the tomb of her first.
When I raised the subject with a few of my friends, I was surprised to find that virtually all of them had at one point had sex in a graveyard. (The one person who hadn’t was an undertaker, who I thought was a dead cert.) While this is in no way a scientific sample — my friends may not be representative, and the portion of my friendship group whom I am comfortable asking impertinent questions certainly isn’t — it suggests it is at least not uncommon. The grave’s a fine and private place; more than you think do there embrace.
For some people, it is because it was the only place they could have sex when they were teenagers. It is never easy to make love in a cold climate when you have no money, particularly in London; if you live with your parents it’s practically impossible. And when cemeteries take up such a high proportion of the green space in some London boroughs, they are far less crowded than parks and provide far more places to hide.
For others, the fact that graveyards are sacred places is their attraction. An article in the online Witch magazine — which normally promotes informed consumer choice on the purchase of crystals and tarot decks — argues that there is a magick in ‘getting it on in a graveyard’ which makes you ‘wildly alive’. It suggests that this is the result of ‘ghostly voyeurs’, but it may just be that the frisson from transgression augments the whole experience. But it’s a safe sort of transgression — one that feels much naughtier than it is. Most urban graveyards are now closed to burials; the dead can’t object; and there’s only a half--remembered sense of what it means for something to be sacred.
I went to Torquay, and to the churchyard in the reports. It seemed an incongruous place for debauchery: halfway between Agatha Christie’s birthplace and the sea, surrounded by handsome Victorian villas, and with a stop for a noddy train just outside. The grass was mown and there was a pleasant bench under a tree where I sat. For four hours. Absolutely nothing happened. ‘It’s dead,’ I texted my wife. ‘It’s a graveyard,’ she replied.
Even when I returned after dark there was nothing, beyond a couple snogging on my bench, to offend public decency. (If a fat middle-aged man can hang around looking furtive for an hour and still not be approached for business, you can assume that prostitution is not a huge blight on an area.)
The first people I saw who weren’t just passing through were some dog-walkers. I assumed at first — they were feisty women with German shepherds — that they had formed some sort of vigilante patrol and that was the reason for the absence of bare ladies; but I went to join them, and the dogs rolled over to be tickled. Had their owners seen any of this sex? ‘Chance would be a fine thing!’ one of them laughed. The other said that three years ago she thought she saw something, but she’d looked the other way.
The real problem was drugs. And looking round the graves I could see spoons and foil and needles; none of the dog walkers had seen any naked flesh, but they had all seen people injecting into their feet because they couldn’t find veins anywhere else. Sheba — the most beautiful and soppy of the German shepherds — had been rushed to veterinary hospital after she trod on a needle and had to be treated for hepatitis.
A national newspaper’s article about the churchyard didn’t mention drugs at all. Drugs aren’t transgressive or depraved: they just kill their users, destroy lives and hospitalise over-inquisitive dogs. But having sex in broad daylight — that’s horrifying.