Sunday 26 October 2008

A Grave Review

Sons of this place let this of you be said,
That you who live are worthy of your dead.
They gave their lives that you in peace may reap
A richer harvest ere you fall asleep.

You may have passed it a hundred times on your way to and fro Tesco's, without realising. I only found out myself when I sat down for an autumn picnic underneath a maple tree on the triangle traffic island between Cowley Road and Hillingdon Road. 'Those stones would be perfect to sit on,' I thought, 'although they do look a bit like tombstones.' And so they were. The churchyard dates back to 1576, and took in the dead of this district until the Burial Act of 1855. The memorial in the middle of the park, on which the poem above is engraved, was actually erected in the twentieth century. It was the brave boys and girls of Uxbridge, who fell in the First and Second World War, that roused my attention for those on the other side of London's pavement.
Soon I found out that, wherever you go, you can spice up your visit with an impressive touch of memento mori. You don't necessarily have to line up at Westminster Abbey to visit the graves of monarchs and celebrities like Geoffrey Chaucer, Newton, Charles Dickens and Darwin. Even when you set out for splurging at Harrods, a fountain might catch your attention and before you know it you face a shrine dedicated to Lady Di and Dodi, complete with candles, lilies and a crystal glass from which they drunk champagne just before they died.
Since the confrontation with death is inevitable, one might as well go looking for the most interesting sites. So, next time that you're on your way to Camden Town, why not take a detour? If you stay in the Northern Line until Archway, you're very close to Highgate Cemetary. This is one of the Magnificent Seven, the enormous private cemeteries in the outskirts of London that were established after all churchyards in the city centre were closed halfway the nineteenth century for hygienic reasons. And Highgate is magnificent indeed. In fact, people are still dying to get in.
As you follow the main lane, you might feel like you're just taking a walk in the woods. But when you look closer between the ancient trees, you recognise the shapes of innumerable crosses and gravestones covered in rampant ivy. These woods are so full of graves, there often isn't even a path in between. But that's okay, because despite the thousandfold engraved promise, 'you will not be forgotten', there is no one left to tend these inaccessible graves.
The eastern section of Highgate Cemetery apparently is the place to be for dead communists, who would start a war, if they still could, for a spot in the same soil as Karl Marx. I suppose from under their gravestones, they can't see how darn ugly his tomb is. On the opposite side of the road you'll find Herbert Spencer, the philosopher that coined the term 'survival of the fittest'. A few paces back to the entrance there's a track up the hill, beset by more graves. Following this track feels like exploring Middle Earth, except that these trees don't talk and these grounds hold actual human bones. While climbing the hill, on your right hand you'll notice a grey column. There lies Mary Ann Cross, the eighteenth century author who adopted a male pseudonym, George Elliot, because otherwise her work would not be taken seriously. For it's protection, you're only allowed in the western part with an official guide. The tour is worth it though, thanks to the impressive collection of Victorian mausoleums and elaborately carved tombs.
If you enjoyed the romantic walk at Highgate Cemetery, the other Magnificent Six are worth a visit as well. You can put flowers on the grave of Isambard Kingdom Brunel at Kensal Green Cemetery, or wonder why Abney Park Cemetery seems so familiar (probably because this is where Amy Winehouse buries her heart in the music video of Back to Black).
But don't forget that the ancient churchyards in central London are full of interesting tales as well, like the one of Captain Bligh, the legendary main character of Mutiny on the Bounty. You can see his mortal remains at St. Mary's Church, opposite the Houses of Parliament. His tomb is tended by the Garden Museum, because he transported breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies and introduced the ackee fruit of Jamaica to the Royal Society in Britain. Instead of running into the dead by chance, you might want to consider exploring London by looking for your favourite deceased and accidentally coming across other interesting features of the lively city – such as the great vegetarian lunches they serve at the Garden Museum.
Though London might be a bit less lively beneath the surface, it's definitely worth paying attention to the dead that crowd the city.


  1. I used to go to greaveyards in Ireland and drink whiskey sitting on a thombstone. graveyards are beautiful, they remind us that we are part of the death/birth, and if you are religious, rebirth, cycle.