Victorian Haunting

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Walking into the West Cemetery at Highgate was an incredible experience. I felt as though I was walking into another century. In a way, that is accurate. Highgate, build in 1839, was the stylish and popular burial place of Victorian England and walking down the winding path transports you to another time.
After touring Highgate, I started researching the burial practices of Victorian England and the superstitions and fears that prompted the need for expensive and intricate tombs. I discovered many interesting facts that allowed me to understand the depth and history of that cemetery.
When a death occurred, any clocks in the room would be stopped to ward off bad luck. The body would be watched every minute for 3 days in case the person was just sleeping (thus the term wake). When the time finally came to carry the body outside of the home, photographs of the family were typically turned over. This was so that no one could be possessed by the spirit of the deceased as they left the house. The body would be carried out feet first, also so that there would be no chance of the dead to convince anyone in the house to follow them.

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The fears surrounding these practices were so interesting to me. Why did they fear death so much? Its a natural step that each and every person takes and yet there is an all encompassing fear surrounding it. The fear of haunting was everywhere. Walking through Highgate was like stepping into a real life ghost story, it gave me goosebumps.
But even though it has a presence of haunting and mystery, Highgate is splendid and beautiful place. When you walk through, you are surrounded by brilliant craftsmanship, all to commemorate the death of loved ones. It is a humbling experience to stroll down those paths and look at the layers upon layers of graves and memorials. All these tombstones have been left to the changing of seasons and the age of years. Surrounded by vines, grasses, and moss the angels still have their somber, watchful gaze and the urns are still draped with regal remembrance.
The readings of this course, especially Urn Burial, and Falling Angels added so much depth to the experience. I remember looking up at one of those angels and pondering how I would’ve felt if that was my own family members grave. The people of the Victorian Era may have feared death and being buried alive but they also respected the need for remembering the dead and doing everything in their power to make their spot in the cemetery perfect. Once I thought about it, I realized that a cemetery plot is like a home for a family after passing. It shows status, wealth, comfort, and allows the family to send a final message to viewers to see for ages to come. It is the last place where people can be remembered after their homes have been sold, companies passed to others, wealth distributed, and job filled by others.

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Highgate is a place to remember the past, to respect the dead, and to transport yourself back in time. I was moved and inspired by the beauty and mystery that surround Highgate Cemetery, it still haunts my thoughts.

-Kp

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One thought on “Victorian Haunting

  1. Kate, this was one of the most brilliant posts I’ve read. I absolutely loved Highgate, it was one of my favorite places that we visited and I love that you chose to research the burial methods and what the superstitions were for that time period. It’s so fascinating to me how much people fear death even though, like you said, it’s a natural step that every person has to go through and is utterly inevitable. However, it’s the idea of not knowing what is beyond that scares people- we fear what we don’t know. I just think it’s so interesting the lengths people went to in order to keep their dead dead and to stop them from possessing anyone on their way out. I love the idea that they were watched for 3 days to make sure they weren’t sleeping, it’s amusing. What strikes me most is I wonder what we do now that is considered a weird superstition to keep the dead from coming back. In a way, I think some people want that with their endless talk about a zombie apocalypse… Do we fear death less now than in the Victorian age? And if so, what changed? What makes more people ready to face death and not as superstitious about keeping their dead out? I looked it up and found an entry on embalming and how that has become a modern American practice for the dead- removing the body fluids and replacing them with disinfecting and preserving chemicals to keep the body looking “healthy” for cosmetic purposes in order for loved ones to view the body. There is an entire article on this process including how to keep the mouth closed and eyeballs round if you’re interested…

    But seriously, this Victorian idea of having to spend endless amounts of money on the dead and using that money to have the best of everything is really interesting. They feared death, but tombs and funerals and clothing were the items they spent the most money on… You would think that if someone feared something, they would try to stay away from it or have it not be of huge monetary cost, it’s fascinating.

    Again, this post was incredible! I miss London too…

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