The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
Analysis: What's Up With the Epigraph?
Epigraphs are like little appetizers to the great entrée of a story. They illuminate important aspects of the story, and they get us headed in the right direction.
Rattle his bones
Over the stones
It’s only a pauper
Who Nobody owns
– Traditional Nursery Rhyme
If we plug this little rhyme into Google, and scroll through the gazillions of results, we find that these are popular lines, and that variations of them go way back in history. We even found a version in “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” a song by the English band The Smiths. Their version goes, “Rattle my bones all over the stones / I’m only a beggar man whom nobody owns.” The song goes on to say that those “words are older than sin,” like we were just saying.
To prove just how far back this rhyme goes, we found a popular poem from 1842 (which isn’t quite as old as sin, but old enough) by English poet T. Noel. Noel’s poem is called “The Pauper’s Drive," and it shares some themes with The Graveyard Book, especially the themes of Death, Compassion and Forgiveness, and Society and Class.
Since Graveyard author Neil Gaiman is English and has read tons of books, we’d be surprised if he doesn’t know about this connection. So why doesn’t he cite Noel or others who use the lines? Well, because Gaiman’s version is still a little different from all of those, especially with capitalizing the word “Nobody” to make it directly apply to Nobody Owens. We’ll come back to that in a moment, but first let’s look at Noel’s poem. We’re not giving up on that comparison yet, no matter what Gaiman has capitalized.
So the speaker of Noel’s poem is watching as a pauper (poor person) who just died is bumped around roughly in a broken hearse (in this case, dragged by horses) over the cobblestone streets to the Potter’s Field. (The Potter’s Field is where they bury people who die without leaving money, relatives, or friends to pay for a proper burial.) The poem’s speaker hears the driver of the hearse singing, “Rattle his bones over the stones / he’s only a pauper whom nobody owns.” The poem’s speaker then scolds the other spectators because they’re being disrespectful. He thinks it’s awful that they honor rich gentlemen when they die, but not paupers (people who die penniless). In the final line of the poem, the speaker says,
Bear softly his bones over the stones
Though a pauper, he’s one whom his Maker yet owns.
In other words, even though the man dies without money, friends, or family, he’s still owned by God. The poem argues that it is disrespectful to honor the dead based on how much money they had while they were living. The speaker thinks that we are not showing the best of ourselves when we act like this.
Does this message sound familiar? It should, because we get the same message from Chapter 4 of The Graveyard Book, “The Witch’s Headstone.” We like Bod so much and think he’s a great hero because he is able to get past all the prejudices of the graveyard people and seek out Liza Hempstock. Liza is a witch who was burned alive and then buried outside the graveyard in unconsecrated ground (as in, ground not formally blessed by a church), a Potter's Field. The fact that her grave isn’t taken care of and isn’t even marked by a headstone totally hurts her feelings. Bod feels the unfairness of this and takes great risk to score a headstone for her.
In the Noel poem “whom nobody owns” means that no person can claim (or own) the pauper as friend or relative, even though all of the people should claim him because God does. In The Graveyard Book, “who Nobody owns” seems to mean that Nobody Owens owns or claims the pauper. Since Nobody is a friend of the dead, this would be a good thing, right? The epigraph (which is very ambiguous) might be suggesting that it’s up to compassionate, sensitive people like Bod to honor the dead, even if most people don’t.
So what do you think of all this? Are dead people able to see how the living think of them after they die? Should we act as if they do, just in case? Is it important to honor the dead? If so, why? How might honoring the dead help the living as well? Can you think of other ways to interpret the epigraph?