Death. As cramped and overcrowded as our big cities seem to be in life! A visit to Highgate Cemetery showed me quite clearly that the Victorians didn’t have much respect for the dead. They must have literally trampled over graves to dig more graves and bury the next bodies.
Well lived lives are evident with much loved messages, inscriptions and epitaphs – I wonder, did these people know during their lives how much they were loved?
Life in the cemetery is vibrant, birdsong from robins and blackbirds, families of blue tits, wrens and pigeons, as well as the occasional parakeet, filled the quiet air. There were foxes, bright orangey red, healthy looking animals running between the tumbled gravestones, pushed out of place by tree roots, creating holes and homes for the local four legged residents.
It was peaceful but not sad. There were occasional cold spots even in the sunshine. January was obviously a chilly time to visit, but it also meant less visitors, so there was plenty of space on the footpaths to wander and take in the atmosphere. A very creepy atmosphere that was created in Audrey Ziffernegger’s book, Her Fearful Symmetry, and the reason that I have wanted to visit ever since I finished reading it. Described as a horror novel, I remember it more as a ghost story and the haunted feeling stayed with me for years after I’d closed the book.
One thing that struck me was the range of names, from the very splendid ‘Hercules Belville’ (film producer) to the more unusual ‘Fanny Cow’. There are also a disproportionately high number of Susannah’s – when I was growing up there was very little in the way of ready made things with my name on them. It seems that had I lived a century ago, mine would have been a much more popular name!
The site is divided into the East and West cemetery, the East is accessible to all for a very small entrance fee, which includes a useful map, and the West offers guided tours – simply because the ground levels are more varied and that’s where the more ornate and grand graves and mausoleums are.
Covering 19 acres, the graves and surrounding areas are maintained by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery and they ensure the headstones and monuments remain safe.
Lion, the lifesize replica of Thomas Sayers (bare knuckle fighter 1826-1865) is one of the many animals in the graveyard, there are also a horse, a lion called Nero and an eagle.
The Egyptian Avenue was built at a time when the interest in Ancient Egypt was still high, so the association with this style of architecture and memorials for the dead was a natural one. The tour takes you through the various paths and past the Terrace Catacombs and Lebanon Circle.
Even as it was built, Highgate Cemetery was meant to be a tourist attraction – people came and read the epitaphs to improve themselves – conservation is ongoing to ensure that we will be able to read the engravings for as many years to come as possible. Highgate Cemetery is a charity and is run as a not for profit organisation – there is still space for new burials and there isn’t any residency requirement, although certain conditions apply. Take a wander round, the tours are informative and the variety of headstones are really interesting. There are some in private spaces, George Michael for example, where you’re not allowed to visit, but the piano (Harry Thornton), bookcase (Jeremy Beadle), Karl Marx (original grave and new huge memorial head) and ‘DEAD’ (Patrick Caulfield) are all easily accessible, along with plenty of weeping angels (Doctor Who style) and sculptures of children (Beryl Bainbridge and Anna Mahler).
It’s a really memorable place to visit, wrap up warm and enjoy the peace. There is something very life affirming about being surrounded by the dead. It reminds us that life is limited and precious.