The Scent of Churchyards

My father was fond of scaring us all into hysterics when we were children by  humming a dirge that began, “There was an old woman, all skin and bone…” in a sepulchral tone.  The whole piece was about old lady and her seemingly interminable journey to the cemetery, and how she had run into a corpse there; and subsequently inquired of the preacher, “Will I look like that when I am dead?”  to which the answer, delivered in a banshee shriek was, “Yes, you’ll look like that when you’re dead!!!” so suddenly, that whoever was listening to the song would invariably jump out of their skins, all the previous droning on having tended to make you drowsy.  It was purposefully macabre, like a Grand Guignol production or a Bram Stoker novel, or Halloween in New Jersey.

But the smell of churchyards for me is not particularly foul or creepy  or corpse like. It is instead the smell of a small white flower that blooms on the bushes at about this time every summer: the privet. Specifically, Amur Privet, and Common Privet

In walking about this year I’ve encountered it practically everyplace because the privet is such a popular hedging plant in this part of the world.  Everywhere from Virginia to Vermont and as far east as the Hamptons, where it demarcates who knows how many close clipped lawns the one from the other, you’ll find privets.

If you don’t care to cut back your hedges hard, you will also have the flowers, and although they’re small and unremarkable looking,  they can produce quite a lot of very penetrating scent.  I can testify to the fact that privet smells powerfully after dark as well, because having been hauled to enough evensongs by my parson father, and hung about any number of churchyard with my siblings (because we could not be counted upon to sit still during service), we were allowed to play in the graveyards. I smelled the privet then, too.  They are as commonly planted in US churchyards as panicle hydrangeas, and to this day the scent cries out “graveyard” to me so strongly that I almost reflexively look about me to see if there are any headstones around.

Not everyone shares this association.  To my mother-in-law, privet is merely one of the nostalgic smells of springtime in Pittsburgh.  To walk down the street in June was to smell privet in bloom, anyplace, on your way to the school or the library, and she asked me once if there were any perfumes that reproduced the smell.

Well, ur , um -  privet is a difficult one.  There is a perfume in production right now called “Privet Bloom” by Hampton Sun , but it was the scent for the company’s skin products, and is actually a simple lily of the valley.  Not really what she was looking for.

Then I remembered Annick Goutal’s Eau de Camille.

The notes of Eau de Camille include honeysuckle, ivy, syringa, and grass.  I have not smelled Eau de C. for years, but when I last knew it in the 1990’s, the scent authentically reproduced the privet.  Perhaps the perfume was a bit less pervasive and smoky than the scent of privet, possibly it leaned rather more strongly in the direction of honeysuckle but Eau de Camille was close enough.  I think the concept of the scent is wonderfully evocative of what you might actually smell in a June garden, because privet, and honeysuckle and the last of the syringas do coincide, along with the smells of grass.

Perhaps Eau de Camille is as close as I currently wish to come to the smell of churchyards.

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4 thoughts on “The Scent of Churchyards

  1. I don’t associate Privet with graveyards, but I do know what you mean by the intoxicating smell of the flowers, particularly at night. There is a lot of privet in the UK as well. I quite like the smell, but like a lot of heady flowers, it is a mixture of attraction and repulsion at the same time. Quite alluring in a strange way though!

    • They are quite strong. For a long time they seemed unpleasant to me, but I am gradually coming around to liking privet. It certainly is one of the smells of early summer here. Didn’t know that privet was common in the UK as well.

  2. Wow, interesting. I have seen privet in cemeteries, but never associated it w/ burials. For me, it has always meant “childhood”. A big wall of privet separated our yard from our next-door neighbor’s– in summer it twinkled with fireflies which we used to capture in canning jars… of course we let them go when our parents called us in. The scent sends me straight back to that time.

    • You are like my mother-in-law then, who associates privets with the skate boards and bicycles of childhood, pure and simple. My up-bringing, by contrast, was just a bit more ecclesiastical than most. My daughter(the skater)goes firefly hunting in just the same way you describe by the by. It’s nice to know that some things don’t change.

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