I have an insatiable curiosity for cemeteries. Maybe it’s because my grandmother used to live next to a church with a large graveyard, but more likely it’s the stories behind the words, a fascination with other people’s lives, especially when they don’t appear to have gone to plan, don’t seem ordinary.
You could accuse me of having some kind of Hello magazine fascination with death, wanting to know more than I should about somebody else’s life. I don’t think so; I can’t gauge that much from a gravestone. No, it’s the possibility that the headstone presents, the idea of a story that starts my imagination running.
As I am in the midst of writing a novel set in the late 1800s, I have more than a passing interest in the Victorian’s obsession with death. Now they really took death seriously, revelling in the trappings of bereavement, especially in the 1890s when funerals became important social status symbols. And the memorials they built (think of the Albert Memorial in Kensington, London) became all the more splendid, noble in the creation of landscaped cemeteries, mausolea, monuments and memorial gardens.
Finding myself at a loose end in London last spring, I suggested to my 12 year old that we visit Highgate Cemetery. You can imagine his reaction – eyes rolling and, well, couldn’t we go to somewhere more interesting? Bribing him with a good lunch (Kalandar Café, 15 Swains Lane, Highgate) we set off with my camera. It was the first sunny day we’d had in months; an inkling of the spring to come after months of a miserably wet winter.
Cemeteries, although not invented by the Victorians, were cultivated by them to a degree difficult to comprehend now, with our 21st century stilted attitude towards death. During Queen Victoria’s reign the growing population scrambled to live in the cities and by the end of the 19th century 77% lived in urban areas. As you can imagine this brought huge hygiene problems and the disposal of the dead became something of a headache. Urban churchyards were full and, frankly, disgusting.
So London set about building beautiful garden cemeteries, away from the churches, of which Highgate is only one of many. Having fallen into disrepair in the 1960s it was rescued by The Friends of Highgate Cemetery who are conserving this magnificent area with its monuments and buildings for the benefit of the public. It’s a work in progress and there are still many graves hidden amongst the overgrowth and rampant ivy. But it’s this slight timeworn disorder that gives the visitor a feeling of mystery and a desire to scratch beneath the surface.
Buried here are luminaries such as Karl Marx, George Elliot, Douglas Adams, Christina Rossetti and Malcolm Maclaren, to name but a few. But it was the ordinary person who we found more interesting, the eccentric and the serious, the tragic and even the hilarious. And I’m delighted to report that my 12 year old found himself captivated (and surprised) by the boundless stories that could be found in this place.
Wouldn’t you want to know what happened to Thomas Putnam of London and Madras?