Upon entering Highgate Cemetery for the first time, I was stuck by how natural, overgrown, and cluttered it was. Very different than any cemetery I had been to before. There was a silence there that I hadn’t heard since I had gotten to London. Walking along the narrow pathways, I half-expected Simon Field topeek out from behind a headstone. Kitty Coleman described the cemetery as: “[having] a lugubrious charm, with its banks of graves stacked on top of one another – granite headstones, Egyptian obelisks, Gothic spires, plinths topped with columns, weeping ladies, angels, and of course, urns – winding up the hill to the glorious Lebanon cedar at the top”. All these different types of gravestones speak to the evolution of style since Highgate Cemetery’s opening in 1839. One of the controversial parts of Highgate, as illustrated in Falling Angels, is the columbarium because it held the ashes of people who had been cremated. Evidence shows that cremation has been used in the disposal of the dead for over 20,000 years, however, regardless of its history, its usage in British polite society was frowned upon for a very long time. The Gothic influence, which is prevalent in the cemetery, came into its own during the Victorian era, when peoplewere obsessed with death and the idea of their own mortality. The Victorian era had a high mortality rate, which translated into an ongoing trend of great ceremonies and lavish memorials to the dead, to -in a sense- immortalize them. Some of these memorials were extremely expensive, costing into the millions to create.
Highgate was formed as one of seven cemeteries, called the ‘Magnificent Seven’, established around the outside of central London in the 1800s to alleviate the overcrowded inner-city parish graveyards. 15 acres of the original cemetery was consecrated by the Church of England as an exclusive burial site for its adherents. Another two acres were set aside for Dissenters. Dissenters is “where all the people who are not Church of England are buried”.
The reason this cemetery is so wildand overgrown is because it is a de facto nature preserve. I’m not sure if it was landscaped or tended when it was first opened but now everything that grows in it is there without human influence. It has become a haven for wildlife as well.
As I walked through Highgate Cemetery I thought about the process of grave-digging that is mentioned in Falling Angels. While reading this part in the book I found it difficult to imagine that it was as dangerous as the book suggested, even considering Simon’s father nearly being buried alive and having life-long repercussions of physical and mental damage. However, seeing this cemetery with sections of it being so crowded with plots and how narrow the individual plotscould be made me realize what a task it would be to dig down. When Simon is talking about grave digging with Maude and Lavinia he says that they’ll dig down 17 feet, which would give them enough stacking space for six coffins. I hadn’t known before that people would be buried like this and it was interesting, if not incredibly morbid, to learn that there are about 170,000+ people buried in Highgate, but in only approximately 53,000 graves. Sounds cozy, doesn’t it?
This excursion to Highgate gives us a sense of Englishness because it shows another aspect of English history and the cultural spatial practices of dealing with mortality and the dead.