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Grave Concerns

Eglantyne Jebb died in December 1928, and was buried in a cheap wooden coffin at St George’s Cemetery in Geneva. From her grave it is just possible to see Mount Saleve, the imposing mountain just south of the city which Eglantyne had loved, and had climbed many times to help clear her head and gain some perspective on the issues that were concerning her.

Eglantyne had actually hoped to be buried somewhere on the mountain, and there is some evidence that her friend William MacKenzie, who made the funeral arrangements, had wanted to honour this wish. He had specified a simple gravestone, intriguingly with ‘no fibs’ to be written on it, and a cheap wooden coffin with ‘inexpensive fittings. And no name plate’. It is ‘a barbarous habit to label a coffin as tho’ you were inside it!!!’ he wrote, and in the end Eglantyne’s coffin only bore her initials. Most likely however he was simply agreeing with Eglantyne’s sentiment that once the spirit has flown, the rest is dust.  MacKenzie then planned a memorial to Eglantyne high on the mountain, but it proved too expensive and the funds raised eventually went to support programmes in Ethiopia instead.  Perhaps this is more fitting – Eglantyne would have been horrified at the thought of money being diverted away from Save the Children’s programmes, and in any case, she had long believed she was more spirit that flesh. ‘If I be dead, yet still I am not there,’ she wrote in her poem ‘A Last Message: ‘For what you love is not my mortal frame; I would not be confused with a corpse; O! let not, then, a corpse assume my name!’

Perhaps it is a good thing that Eglantyne held this attitude, because her corpse has had several close encounters with disinternment. In 1990 some oversight meant that the lease on her grave was not renewed, and somebody else was nearly allocated her plot at St George’s. Only the quick work of a concerned visitor alerted Save the Children to the situation, and the lease was renewed in time. Perhaps it was a twenty-year arrangement, as earlier this year the cemetery again got in touch with Save the Children, letting them know that the rights granted to her gravestone were again about to expire. Very sensibly Save the Children wrote to the Jebb family, and after six months of talks the Executive Council of the City of Geneva have just agreed to maintain Eglantyne’s grave for an indefinite period and at no cost, in acknowledgement of the fundamental role Eglantyne played in the recognition and promotion of children’s rights. Wonderful. Huge sighs of relief all round; ‘the news was like a blast of warm sunshine on what was a cold, wet and windy day’ Lionel Jebb wrote in response.

What would Eglantyne have made of all this fuss? I think she would be laughing, and probably from up on the mountain, not down in the cemetery.

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