Highgate Cemetery

My visit to Highgate Cemetery was unlike any other cemetery visit I’ve been to. My dad owns three cemeteries, so I am fairly used to seeing cemeteries. I’ve been to work with my dad, which allows me to connect to the characters in Falling Angels. I wouldn’t necessarily have been playing in the cemetery, but it wasn’t a place of grief for me, like they are for most other people. This is not to say that I haven’t had a traditional experience of a cemetery. I have visited grandparents that have passed on, as well as friends and family friends.

 

But upon visiting Highgate, I gained yet another perspective of a cemetery. The first difference I noticed was that these have above ground crypts. According to my dad, these are not common in America, as opposed to traditional burial sites. I understood how it is a way for the living to connect with the dead, as they occupy the same space. But it goes past that. This is a place that the living and the dead, and possibly whoever is watching over them as well (maybe angels). This is a place where all different religions, ethnicities, genders, classes, and time periods all come to rest in peace together. And of course there are also the people that visit them.

There was a lot of symbolism in this cemetery. For example, the broken columns symbolize a life lost too soon. There were snakes biting their tales, called ouroboros. Ouroboros represent an idea of a life cycle. A person goes through their life, then the afterlife, and is eventually reborn, according to the ideology behind ouroboros. Of course, angels are seen as protectors in Christian religions (guardian angels).

 

In addition to these, there were some unique ones. There was a man who had a very loyal dog, so they made a statue of his dog. Another had a lion. The most unique one I saw was one man had a horse. According to our tour guide, Helena, this man was actually a horse butcher. I’m not sure the reasoning behind putting that type of statue, and I don’t think I want to find out really. Then of course there was the sleeping angel. We’ve read about this angel so much in falling angels. It is so uniquely characterized, and is really gorgeous.

Sleeping angel

The other side of the cemetery was definitely more modern. It was much better kept, and more recent burials. It was pretty exciting to see Karl Marx’s grave. There were also famous writers there.

I definitely believe this experience of a cemetery has changed my view on a cemetery, and I will be carrying this new perspective with me in the future when I visit cemeteries. I never expected one cemetery visit to completely change how I see all cemeteries.

Highgate Cemetary

Chris Ciambor

August 12, 2013

The Highgate Cemetery tour was very interesting to me. Before this, I had not had a personal tour of a cemetery, especially one with such amazing English and Egyptian influenced architecture.

I feel as though these tombstones represent Englishness as a form of remembrance. These tombstones mark not only place honoring the dead, but also act as sort of ‘snapshot’ in time. The tombstones remember the person, as well as their life and the life and times in which they had lived in. The experience was a bit strange: I understand the purpose of the tour and the connection to Falling Angels.

Touring the cemetery helped me understand the idea that those there buried have taken a piece of England with them, of the times in which they lived.  I am reminded of a quote from the poem “The Soldier” which was mentioned in class:  If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”

 

The cemetery tour also offered a view tombstones of the famous buried there.  Among the famous included Karl Marx, the author of the Communist Manifesto. I never saw a tombstone with a sculpture of the head of the deceased.  Also seeing Douglas Adams grave (author of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”) made an impression on me. It was interesting seeing all these famous writers and political movers and shakers being buried all in one place. Visiting the Highgate Cemetery was an eye opening, if somewhat strange, experience.

In reading the book “Falling Angels” I learned about the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain. The families in the story had a real connection to Highgate Cemetery, and reading this book offered the class an opportunity to take the tour, something that visitors to London may not think of doing.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-19000769

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Highgate Cemetery

One of the absolute best places that we visited on this trip was Highgate Cemetery. I talked about Highgate a little bit in my Falling Angels blogpost, so I’ll try not to sound repetitive. I love places that have presences of ghosts. I think ghost stories are incredibly fascinating and being in a place where a lot of ghosts definitely hang around was incredible. I Googled “ghost stories of Highgate Cemetery” and came up with a couple good ones. By the 1960s when the beautiful cemetery became abandoned, it was rumored that satanic cults were holding strange ceremonies in the dark. The local newspaper, the Hampstead and Highgate Express, began receiving letters of ghostly encounters around the cemetery: one was of a “hideous apparition with glowing red eyes”, another was of a “fearsome creature that “seemed to glide” from the wall of the cemetery”, yet another was of a ghostly cyclist, and yet another is of a “mad old woman, whose long grey hair streams behind her as she races amongst the graves, searching for her children, whom she is supposed to have murdered in a fit of insane rage.” (x) Finally, the most famous ghost story is that of a Highgate Vampire. This vampire, according to an article on a ghost story website, is a tall figure that vanishes into thin air. This vampire is also sometimes mentioned wearing a top hat and walking slowly through the wall of the cemetery, with the toll of an abandoned church bell ringing after his disappearance. Some stories say it was a man who was alive in medieval Romania and whose coffin was brought to England. Some people stay they still see him from time to time and other accounts claim to have staked and burned his body. I found a video on the Highgate Vampire and how one bishop got rid of him once and for all… (There are also a lot of other great Highgate ghost story videos on YouTube and found myself watching quite a few.)

As I previously mentioned, I talked about the importance of Highgate before when I talked about Falling Angels, but in that post, I mention its relation and meaning to the text. In terms of Englishness, I think this is a huge defining place for that term. Highgate is the beautiful, overgrown, haunted place that was a visible display of how much money people had and wanted to give their dead the best of the best. Just look at the mausoleum of Julius Beer and the entire Egyptian Avenue! This is where some of the greatest English minds and athletes have come to rest and is something that needs to be seen by all who visit London for its sheer beauty and existence of the ghostly rumors. This is something that “maps Englishness” because of its heterotopic nature. This is a place where both the living and the dead worlds exist with one another and, like I’ve mentioned before, I believe London is one huge heterotopic space because of the layering of different spatialities. It’s a beautiful, haunting space that is the burial place of great writers and wealthy people.

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Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery

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When entering the Highgate Cemetery I was stroke by its location. The old style design that it represented reminded me of the churches in London. The building as you walked in had an archway doorway and the walls were made of brick. There was definitely a scared and religious vibe to the place as I arrived. What I also found interesting is that the graveyard itself was located in the forest. I have never experienced the same religious feeling I did in a graveyard than I did in Highgate. There was just something about it that made it different. I think a big part of it had to do with the architecture of the stones and monuments themselves. There were some that were falling apart and becoming eroded. But to me, that is what made it stand out. That is what made it so unique and beautiful. You could get lost inside the cemetery because there were so many tombs and stones to see. I thought that the interesting stories on each gravestone represented a part of Englishness. I didn’t realize that the grave stone monuments themselves had stone much meaning. I feel as if people look at them and wonder about the meaning. I liked that the guide explained what some of the monuments meant and it really gave a different sort of feeling when looking at the rest of the stones. I felt I understood more about their past.

Something else I noticed while walking through the cemetery was how class took a major role on the gravestones. Normally in a graveyard you don’t think of those things but it was interesting to see how much a person from a higher class was willing to spend on monuments of that century. I think says a lot about Englishness because it describes how important this was to their culture. It was a tradition to get these monuments for some people. I think that says a lot about the culture and the values it has.

One thing that stuck out to me was the Egyptian tombs. I found it very interesting that London’s Highgate cemetery had tombs from the Egyptians. This to me, made me again think of how diverse this city really is. I found it very fascinating and incredibly interesting.

A very powerful monument I thought was the fallen angle statue like in the book we read, “Falling Angels” by Tracy Chevalier. I have never seen a statue like that on a grave stone ever before. When getting to learn more about it’s history and learning how rare of a stone it was, it made it even that much more interesting. I believe that these monuments all represented Englishness and brought something different to the space itself.

Another interesting sight I saw that stood out was Carol Marx’s gravestone. I believe that should an inspirational person in the graveyard made it even more of an interesting cemetery. The philosophers grave stone states, “Workers Of All Lands Unite”. Which I found very symbolic because of the diversity that the City of London has.

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

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.

Highgate Cemetery

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I was a little nervous before our trip to Highgate Cemetery. The idea of having a dress code made me think that I would be entering a space that was super strict. It turns out I was nervous for nothing. The experience was truly wonderful, and our guide was very knowledgeable and friendly.

Being in the space was nothing like I had imagined. I was not expecting the overgrown gravestones in such close proximity to each other. Before I left for our trip I frequently went on walks around Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester. I think in my mind I was expecting something more like that, manicured lawns with gravestones spread out a uniform distance from the closest one next to it. That is what I pictured when I read Tracy Chevalier’s novel Falling Angels.

Tracy Chevalier has a whole segment about the inspiration for her novel on her website. She stated, “What interested me most is the transitional period between the Victorian era, with its strict social codes and elaborate commemoration of the dead, and the modern world where religion has lost its value and death is no longer celebrated. This change began in Britain during the reign of King Edward VII- the Edwardian period. Falling Angels thus begins on the day after Queen Victoria’s death in 1901 and ends right before King Edward’s funeral in 1910.” Chevalier’s intent for this novel was to explore the changing social customs during this time. One of these social norms related to death that Chevalier explored was the idea of mourning cloths. In the novel Lavinia dedicates a page to how you are supposed to dress and for how long if a family member passes away. The Victorian Era was held to strict standards on what was appropriate for dress. According to the passage on mourning on Tracy Chevalier’s website, men had it easy when it came to mourning because they wore their typical dark suits. Women on the other hand  were held to higher standards. These high standards for women are reflected in other areas of the novel where Kitty tired of wearing the typical constricting skirts causes a scene when she appears at the WSPU rally in “a short green tunic belted in the middle…She’s got bare legs, from her ankles up to—well, up high…everyone’s staring at Kitty Coleman’s legs”

Kitty is the character in the novel who reflects the changing times after the Victorian Era. With in the first couple pages of the novel Kitty wears a blue dress for the morning of Queen Victoria, defying the social norms for typical mourning dress. These changes are what Tracy Chevalier was looking to explore in her novel Falling Angels.

http://www.tchevalier.com/fallingangels/bckgrnd/mourning/