a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Accidental Visits: Highgate Cemetery

I like reading fiction which is set in London. Somehow having a mental image of a place drawn from a memory or familiarity rather than having to construct it solely from the words on the page before me makes it easier for me to become immersed in a story. I read a book not so long ago, the second novel from a much heralded author whose first book had been an extraordinary hit, which was set in London, not so far from where I live. Highgate, and strangely its cemetery, was the location for this somewhat unlikely tale of ghosts and identical twins. And yes I know I should suspend disbelief, blah blah blah, but I just wasn't wild about this book's plot which got ever more unbelievable and fantastical as it went along.  But its descriptions of London held my attention. It even created a desire in me to go and visit the setting for much of the book's action; Highgate Cemetery.

London has numerous burial grounds where hundreds of years of citizens have found their final home in the city. Many of the most famous Londoners, or frankly people of all time, are interred here; from great political minds to some of our nation's more peculiar television presenters.  The cemetery is split in two, divided by a narrow lane; one on side is the East Cemetery and on the other, the older West Cemetery.  Neither cemetery is the blank, organised graveyard which often springs to mind, with perfectly laid out rows of headstones and trimmed grass down the middle.  They were designed as "garden cemeteries", full of trees and shrubs, hence a wander around feels rather like a visit to a slightly wild and tangly country park.  As the West Cemetery is only accessible via scheduled tours, my Accidental companion and I pottered at our own pace around the East.

Despite the fact that the East Cemetery is still used to inter many recently departed Londoners (who had the foresight and finances to reserve a plot), parts of it feel very much unvisited or undiscovered.  Maybe visiting it on a soggy Sunday gave a particular vibrancy to the green grasses and weeds and trees.  In some corners nature was very much claiming the intrusive stone and metal.  Tangled branches wrapped themselves around mausoleum columns and carved crosses. In some places stone angels or obelisks had been toppled by the force of an immovable tree root.

Beyond the tussle between man-made monument and plants however, we found stones commemorating The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author, Douglas Adams, and the final resting place of punk legend, Malcolm McLaren.  A random group of companions clutching bunches of flowers huddled in the drizzle in front of a vast monument, atop which was a monstrous bust of Karl Marx.  One particularly striking, and everso slightly tasteless, tombstone stood 5 feet high in dark slatey stone, with cut-out letters spelling out "D - E - A - D".  We noted from the inscription the person interred below was an artist; suddenly this design went from slightly shocking to a tad pretentious.
A common feature of many of the graves in this site is the addition of what their eternal inhabitants did whilst upon this mortal coil. Most simply state a single word to define who they were, beneath their profession.  An artist here, a nurse there.  Doctors lie next to poets.  Publishers share a plot with font developers.  Other epitaphs indicate a little more about a person's style, how they were who they were.  One person who had worked in media production was commemorated with "Memories of laughter and lunch".

I learnt that you can begin to know a lot about a person from what is written about them on their tombstone - a final and eternal report-card.  You can learn even more about what is not written.  The matching headstones of a husband and wife stood near the entrance.  The husband had died first, his wife choosing the lettering for her beloved: "Loved by all".  His wife had followed him out of mortality, although her epitaph had clearly been written by someone who didn't hold her in such high esteem as her husband: "Loved by many".  (I'm guessing the less devoted minority had chosen the second tombstone's text, to highlight that she wasn't missed quite as much as her husband.)  So be nice to everyone - you never know who will end up writing your epitaph.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for going to the Highgate Cemetery. For some reasons I have never been, I find it creepy. Cemeteries depress me...
    However, I like your comment about the wife who was less popular than her husband. Who knows how we will be remembered?

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  2. I know what you mean about cemeteries being depressing (I did my undergraduate dissertation on people who go to dark places as tourists), but Highgate is not somehow. It just feels calm and peaceful, and there are a lot of worse places to end up I reckon! It did give me some slightly lugubrious thoughts about remembering the departed though...but interesting at the same time.

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  3. I'm so glad I found your blog! I'm from New Zealand and my partner and I are heading to Europe for the first time in June, including a stop in London. I never thought someone could make me want to see a cemetery haha

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  4. I absolutely loved that book and have been wanting to visit Highgate Cemetery since. Now you've reminded me that I still haven't done it :)

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  5. Thanks very much Penny - I hope you find it interesting/useful for when you visit.

    "Her Fearful Symmetry" described it pretty well, LJB. I'd urge you to go if you enjoyed the book!

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