August 23rd – The Festival of the Taxman’s Headstone

Buentoille has slowed down its expansion somewhat in the last 100 or so years, what with improved infant mortality rates and the general prosperity of the City post-Revolution leading to lower birth rates. Rapid expansion is, however, part of Buentoille’s history, and it had its winners and losers. One of the losers in the 1680s was a small, poorly tended graveyard that nobody seemed to own.

Usually the City owned municipal sites and structures such as graveyards, even in those darker times of privatised rail and healthcare. This was probably because they weren’t particularly profitable, and therefore undesirable as an investment. It seemed with this little chunk of land that nobody even knew who was buried there; it was one of those places that just existed. Nobody, not even the City itself, had laid claim to it, or at least that was the case until 1684 when Iris Augnender decided to build a block of flats over it.

Although there was no legal reason to dissuade her from this course of action, there was plenty of resistance from the local community, who treated the graves with a strange reverence, more strongly felt than the normal levels of respect for the dead. This was probably down to the age of the graveyard, which seems to have been mentioned as far back as 1148 by Rebault Irkshire in A Trype Abowt the Sityee. There were several rumours and pieces of folklore associated with the small patch of sanctified ground; it was home to those killed in some awful pogrom, or that they all died in the same instance from an unknowable cause, or even that the graveyard had been there before even the first Buentoillitants, that it was the last remnant of some former civilisation besides the Moway.

There was a tradition within the surrounding houses of the Catathon district, where historically fish caught at sea were brought to be smoked, and before that where the central hub of charcoal production was located, to try to keep the graves well tended, despite not knowing who they were for. They left offerings of wild flowers in the summer and holly branches with bright red berries in the winter. The reason didn’t seem as important as the act itself, although perhaps it is down to the fact that charcoal burners and fish smokers tend to have a bit more spare time on their hands than other workers. In the years leading up to the graveyard’s destruction, it had begun to fall into disrepair, the great changes of that era leading the families who traditionally looked after the graves elsewhere, with newcomers ignorant to these ways replacing them.

Perhaps if Augnender had proposed her plan to build flats there somewhat earlier, there would have been more resistance and it would not have happened at all. As it was, the locals convinced her to let them retain the bodies and headstones so that they could be moved elsewhere. The workmen did as they were told and (rather haphazardly) piled up the 100 or so headstones against a local tree, in readiness for relocation at another plot when it was found. They found no bones beneath them in the soil, which sounds strange but was probably down to the high acidity of the soil there, the age of the graves and the lack of care shown by the workmen. Presumably there were a few fragments still dwelling in the soil, but nothing big enough for the archaeologically untrained workmen to take notice of.

When no bones were found, there was less of a need to find a new home for the headstones, and there was no land cheap enough nearby to rehouse them, so they stayed leaned against the tree, and are still there today. The tree in the centre has now grown over a significant proportion of them, which are piled up in a large circle around it, leaning inwards. A few of the headstones broke in the process of moving them. In some cases the pieces are wedged back together and held intact by the pressure of the surrounding stones, in some cases the pieces were left in an untidy pile that punctuates the circle as a lower point. In some cases, pieces are missing altogether.

One of the headstones that has pieces missing is the gravestone of a taxman. We know they were a taxman because this is written clearly at the top of the remaining piece, but all the other text has since been worn away by weather. It is a very ornate headstone, with only the top, semicircular section missing. According to a story told by the folk who live in the houses by the tree, this semicircular section was very beautiful and ornate, and was taken by Augnender to become part of the chimney breast of the home she was building for herself. It would have sat behind the mantelpiece, framing the items she chose to place there. Two weeks after the building’s completion, it burned down from a chimney fire, with Augnender inside. If the stories are to be believed, the night before a taxman had knocked on her door asking her to pay the tax due on the land she had acquired. She closed the door in his face.

This story may account for the reason that the gravestones have never been moved from beneath the spreading branches of the maple tree, which now has a considerable girth, and might also be the reason for the rituals carried out there today, the anniversary of their transplantation. Much alike the offerings of before, wild flowers are laid around the gravestones, but now they are hung from the tree’s branches, too. They seem to be hung in a circle, the kind of offering that is designed to ensure that the spirits residing in the stones are kept in, and do not go about burning down anyone else’s home. They also read out the names on all those headstones still visible, and a few others that were once visible but are no longer. Finally, they hang one last thing from the maple branches, a precaution just in case: a copy of their tax records, to show that everything is paid up in full.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Festival of Jolly Mountaineering
  • The Precocious Teenagers’ Festival