On Sunday, Luc, Kate (a friend from SA) and I went to Highgate Cemetery. I’d been desperate to go there since reading about some of the graves (and the people buried in them) in Ann Treneman’s ‘Finding the Plot: 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die’ and it also seemed like an appropriate outing for the post-Halloween weekend. I love graveyards. In my excitement, I failed to do proper research and arrived at the gates not realising that it would cost money to get inside. (D’oh.) We justified the expense with the fact that we almost never do anything that has an entrance fee and because Kate was with us and we had come all that way up the Northern Line … and it was definitely worth it. The ticket included a guided tour of the west side of the cemetery (only accessible in this way) as well as access to the east side, where a number of famous people are buried, such as Karl Marx and Douglas Adams, to name just two. The east side can also be visited without the guided tour of the west side, for a smaller fee. This is a very good thing, because I need to go back to the east side; we ran out of time before the tour and I want to inspect more of the beautiful graves in there.
What is it about cemeteries and graveyards*? It doesn’t matter who’s buried there, really, it’s more about the atmosphere of the place, and the sense of history as a tangible thing. Highgate Cemetery has a particularly rich history and is a great exemplification of ‘the Victorian way of death’, as our tour guide put it. The graves are loaded with symbolism, particularly in the west side (which is the older part of the cemetery). Many of them are intricate and beautiful and all of them have with a story… though I’m sure many of those stories have been lost to the living, under the moss and tangled vines of time.
One of the most fascinating things was the idea of a burial site as a posthumous statement of social standing; something that seems utterly ridiculous to me… And yet, this was very much a part of the Victorian way of death. People saved their money while they were alive to afford the grave of their dreams, so to speak. The vaults and catacombs and expensive, elaborate structures are enthralling in their strangeness. Time has certainly changed the way that people in general think about and deal with death, and it’s so fascinating to wander between the mossy monuments and reflect on these sorts of things. The passing of time, the inevitability of it all… it makes me throw my mind both backwards into the past and forward into the future. And it makes me want to write. I launched into a bit of graveyard-inspired writing that evening when I got home, making up some hopefully credible crap about the handling of corpses in my imagined world:
Cremation is no longer practiced in the post-Chaos world, not due to the resurgence of any cultural sensitivities but because the burning of bodies is recognised as wasteful and polluting. Burials, the now dominant method of body disposal, are always raw, as dressed burials (in which the body is clothed and/or contained in a non-bio vessel) are prohibited by the Code in the interest of environment preservation. For the same reasons, grave markings are uncommon. Where grave markings do exist, they are normally subtle or natural changes to the environment, such as the planting of a tree or the shifting of a nearby stone. In most localities, there are recommended areas for burial. These shift depending on the changing state of the environment…
Speculative nonsense, but possibly the way of the future. If you’re reading this blog post a century from now, do hop into your time-machine and find me here so that I can know if it panned out like this in the end. I’m curious.
I should be doing NaNo. I’m disgustingly behind and this is a shameful procrastination. But Google Highgate Cemetery and read stuff. That’s my suggestion. And watch this video, featured on the Highgate Cemetery website, if you’re interested; it captures some of the peaceful, sombre beauty of the place. The pictures we took don’t capture the atmosphere quite as well, but I’ve stuck a few of them behind the cut anyway.
*I don’t have the Oxford English Dictionary on hand, but according to Wikipedia (shutup), ‘The Oxford English Dictionary defines a cemetery as a “burial-ground generally; now esp. a large public park or ground laid out expressly for the interment of the dead, and not being the ‘yard’ of any church”’ although the words ‘cemetery’ and ‘graveyard’ are ‘generally used interchangeably’ today. There you have it.