Our trip to Highgate Cemetery was one of my absolute favorite excursions, both for the cemetery’s beauty and impact on my understanding of the course material, particularly Falling Angels. For starters, the lay out of the entire cemetery shocked me; I’m used to the contemporary, organized cemetery with parallel grave plots and paths, but Highgate had many twists and turns as we were on the tour. This created a more intimate environment than I had envisioned in Falling Angels.
Seeing the layout of Highgate directly influenced how I understood one of the scenes from the beginning of the novel, where Richard and Kitty are fighting about the Waterhouse’s angel. In Kitty’s chapter, she reflects on Highgate, saying “the excess of it all-which our own ridiculous urn now contributes to-is too much,” and both of the Coleman’s feel that everything is “far too close” (12). Richard thinks the angel is “sentimental nonsense” while Kitty believes it’s all “utter banality and misplaced symbolism.” Throughout our tour, it became clear that virtually every part of the cemetery was drenched in symbolism. Some of it was intricate and sweetly sentimental, but after a while it was obvious that it was too much. The obsession with death that the Victorians had seemed a bit silly in Falling Angels; walking through the cemetery made it clear that in fact these people were dedicated to formality and “proper” death.
The Coleman’s had a point, for a lot of places in the cemetery felt too close for comfort. I started to wonder how one could concentrate on connecting and mourning a loved one with so many other graves right next to you. Our tour guide told us that there was such a high demand for grave plots that Highgate was initially created, and then the second part of the cemetery was opened up across the way to house even more plots. Insane! No wonder it started to get so crowded. Another interesting thing the tour guide said is that multiple funerals and diggings would go on sometimes and it would get pretty noisy in the cemetery. Very different from the experiences I’ve had in cemeteries. All of this information helped me reimagine Falling Angels and bring some of the nuances Chevalier includes to life.
Kitty Coleman’s wish to be cremated instead of buried was quite the controversy in the novel, one that I found intriguing. The Columbarium in Highgate was not what I expected. I took this picture through the grate that covered the door; in it you’ll see how tiny the spaces for the ashes were, which in the novel are described as “little cubbyholes for the urns”; finally the description made sense!
Cremation was controversial during the Victorian Era, and Edith Coleman embodies the Christian opposition. She says that “for non-Christians it can be an option. The Hindu and the Jew. Atheists and suicides. Those sorts who don’t care about their souls” (68). “What about reassembly?” she asks, ” How can the body and soul be reunited on the Day of the Resurrection if the body has been…” cremated? Christianity was in integral part of Englishness in this time period, so cremation was of course largely rejected. Thinking about how intricately the Victorians decorated each grave and adorned it with the “appropriate” symbols, I wonder if another reason cremation was rejected is because it took away from a lot of the materialism they focused on in death. The Columbarium is tiny, with no room for mourners to mourn the traditional way the Victorians did. Both Falling Angels and our trip to Highgate proved that during the time period, the focus when someone died was on those that were left behind, not those that had actually passed away.