When I was young I would sometimes accompany my mom to the local cemetery as she tended to the flowers and plants of loved ones since passed. Despite the cemetery being close to main roads I found it a peaceful place. A place where those visiting barely spoke; actions of visiting, watering plants and a wistful memory speaking more than anything that could be voiced. During those visits I would quietly wander around the headstones, taking in names and epitaphs. Some passed recently, others decades ago.
During my travels I have visited some cemeteries when I had the opportunity. It is not something that I do often but something that I seek out if it may be an old burial place or a well-known one (such as Pere Lachaise in Paris). While in London I made a point to visit Highgate Cemetery in north London (I wrote about Highgate here in one of my Sunday’s Special Spot posts). Since then I have learned that it is one of the “Magnificent Seven”- the name given to the seven large private cemeteries built in Victorian London.
I was intrigued to see this particular burial place as its history includes a time where it was forgotten. Into the 1970s the cemetery “closed down” as it was not profitable. The private company walked away and it was left to nature and vandals. Now it is preserved by Friends of Highgate Cemetery – a trust that relies on volunteers and supported by paid staff for its upkeep. A nominal fee to wander East Highgate is in place with West Highgate relying on tours (with the remainder not open to public).
When I arrived at Highgate, located next to Waterlow Park, it was an overcast day. It seemed to add to the peaceful aura of Highgate. A rather large place, Highgate was a perfect place to wander and contemplate. I began on a marked path. Not the main, wide path but one along the perimeter. A narrow path with kerb set graves on either side, some so close that the headstones leaned together as if to grant support for one another. Sections had rows of kerbs and tombs, several deep resting among layers of winter leaves and moss becoming one with the stone. Stepping between these graves to capture a mood on film, I felt as if I was disturbing something, yet…yet my desire to see the engravings and to try and capture them kept me searching. I meant no disrespect, I only wished to see. I laid my hand upon a headstone to keep my balance and found myself apologizing, as though the memory of the person still lingered in the air. I reflected on the idea of a cemetery. A place of rest for bodies of lives lived before us – a last attempt to be remembered, to be noticed. It is a wonder of an idea. Was this based on the living or a request of the dying? I stepped back to the path and wandered some more. I caught a glimpse of a cat and then another. A black cat was sitting on a tombstone four feet high, a tuxedo cat sat on the kerb. A black cat in a cemetery – I smiled to myself, “Well isn’t that a like a horror movie genre?” I tried to get close but they ran off. I continued along the marked paths and came back to the main footpath. Here was a monument of a headstone – not a mausoleum but definitely a monument. It was the grave of Karl Marx, the only name I recognized of the list of well-known persons buried here. A bust Marx is mounted top rectangular tombstone and I wondered how he came to rest in England. I looked around and saw that the cemetery continued on for some distance. Tombs with crosses, Celtic crosses and angels dotted the landscape. I twisted and turned along the smaller paths, taking photos and enjoying the relative quiet. As I meandered I caught sight of a gravestone askew and covered with ivy. I had to see it. I moved along the leaf-covered grass, making my own path between the narrow spaced graves. As I came across the headstone I was intrigued by others. I stopped to photograph one when another buried deep in ivy caught my eye. I made my way carefully to it and had to brush away the vines to see get a glimpse of a name: “John James…”, the rest too thickly hidden. I continue to wander, enamored by the thick quiet of this area. Most of these graves are dated 1880 – 1920. I look down and saw the word “Son” on the edge of a kerb. Nearby was a family tomb marked with all their lost young children. I cannot imagine the despair. Yet another headstone boasts of a love so strong. Still more have names and dates only. I spot another angel on the grave, this one with her arm broken off. I continue to take my photos. I see graves entirely covered in thick ivy. Others with moss covering their smooth stone surface. Kerb sets and headstones lay so close to one another I wondered how they were every buried at all. Some had begun to sink into the ground as if nature herself was taking them back to her. At one point Highgate was forgotten and it made me wonder if anyone remembered these souls at all, after all so much time has passed. It did not make me sad, not at all. It just made me think. This place, more than the other (few) cemeteries I have visited had an aura about it. Part haunting, part beauty. No, not one of sadness but one of a forgotten beauty.