Story Snippet #398: Echoes of Latin

I was jogging in the neighbouring cemetery (St Pancras & Islington) as is my wont, when I passed an old man tending a grave. I looped back to have a chat because it is a distinctive headstone which I have often noticed so was interested in the story behind it.

It is a tall, thin headstone with a burning torch on it which I believed was known as a ‘fasces’ – from memories of my Latin classes at school. I thought that meant a torch made from a bundle of sticks bound together. Having just checked though it looks like it means “a bundle of rods with a projecting axe blade, carried by a lictor in ancient Rome as a symbol of a magistrate’s power, and used as an emblem of authority in Fascist Italy”. Seemingly ‘facem’ is one of the Latin words for torch, I may be remembering that. Whatever – it always reminds me of Latin classes at school which I enjoyed (and went on to study languages).

The old man explained that his brother had designed the unusual headstone for their mother, who died at just 44. There’s a small photo of her and her husband on the grave. The father, who was a parachutist in World War Two, lived to 77 but got Alzheimer’s. He always remembered the two brothers’ names though, even when all else was lost.

The family originates from Camden Town (which is odd as the cemetery does not serve the Borough of Camden). I told him I was planning to go tomorrow on Christmas day to the plot, further down the same lane, of semi- or unmarked graves connected to Arlington House in Camden Town – mainly Irish people who died away from their families on strange soil. “Ah, the Big House,” he said, “that’s what we used to call it.”

After I wished him a Merry Christmas and ran on I regretted not asking him more about both Camden Town and parachutists. I had though passed on the fact that the gravestone is unique in the cemetery, given that I run in it several times a week and know it as well as anyone by now, which I hope brought him some simple pleasure.

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