Highgate Cemetery and Falling Angels

 

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.

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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.

Columbarium

Columbarium

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.

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One thought on “Highgate Cemetery and Falling Angels

  1. Hi Courtney! I was actually talking with my mom about this book a couple days ago and I told her that two families met because they had plots next to each other. What she didn’t understand right away was just how close in proximity the graves are to one another. It’s no wonder these two families met- how could you avoid the people with plots next to yours? I’m used to the flat, gridded layout of a cemetery, like you are, and so this kind of proximity can definitely be considered claustrophobic. You raise a good point when you ask how one could focus on mourning their loved one when there are people literally on top of you. To the people of the Victorian era, the burial practices of their loved ones were very important and something they would willingly spend ridiculous amounts of money on and so you would think that being able to mourn the deceased loved ones in a private space would be ideal. I can now see why Julius Beer built an entire mausoleum for his daughter…

    What you posed about Victorians rejecting cremation because they lose the symbolism and materialism associated with death is absolutely perfect. I think that is entirely on-point and raises a valid answer to why cremation was rejected. I also think it fits then that Kitty Coleman wanted to be cremated. She didn’t understand the adorning of the graves with cumbersome, superfluous materialistic markers was considered important and she definitely liked to be an individual and didn’t want to have to do what everyone expected of her. And maybe because she didn’t feel whole until she joined the suffragette movement and wouldn’t want to feel that kind of emptiness again in another life that she ruled out the idea of being “put back together” spiritually.

    You raised a lot of interesting points and talked about one of my favorite excursions as well. Great post, Courtney!

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