In my first week here in London, I bought and read Audrey Niffenegger’s newest novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. (This is the same author of The Time-Traveler’s Wife.) There were things I found beautiful about her new work, as well as elements I found trite. Overall, it was a surprising and haunting ghost story, and despite some of my problems with disjointedness and character development, I really enjoyed reading it. Perhaps one element of why I devoured it so quickly was the context: the book centers on two girls who have inherited their aunt’s flat and fortune in London. They were exploring the city, just as we have been doing. The plot itself centers on a particular cemetery on the outskirts of London called Highgate. Niffenegger herself actually volunteers at this cemetery, and much of the history of the place is woven into the novel. After finishing the book, I lent it to Carrie – since we both enjoyed the book, and share a fondness for the strange calm of cemeteries, we decided that we wanted to try to visit.
So, on Wednesday, Carrie, Nicole and I made our way up the Northern Line to the Highgate stop. We gathered a lot of the history of Highgate Cemetery from reading the book, and still more when we arrived. In the early decades of the 19th century, London was facing a population explosion – in addition to the host of problems this caused (living space, waste removal, etc.) was the somewhat distasteful fact that the cemeteries in the city were simply too small to handle the number of people who were dying within its limits. Parliament sought to address this problem in the 1830’s and 1840’s by creating seven huge private cemeteries on the outskirts of the city. Highgate, as one might imagine, has the highest elevation of the bunch, and the original section was comprised of 17 acres. A second section, East Cemetery, was opened in 1856 to accommodate the level of interest in this, the most “fashionable” of London cemeteries. (A tunnel was constructed under the road between them, so as the bodies would never leave consecrated ground between the funeral and the burial. ) The older section is known as West Cemetery, and it was here that Her Fearful Symmetry was primarily focused. Unfortunately, the tours of West Cemetery are restricted to a very small number of people, and are only run once on weekdays… Therefore, we embarked on our own exploration of the East Cemetery. This gave us the time we wanted to wander, to breathe in the highly oxygenated air, and just enjoy the beautiful, calm silence of this incredible place.
Interestingly, after the Victorian frenzy for elaborate, theatrical funerals began to wane, these massive, gorgeous cemeteries began to fall into disrepair. Many graves were left to be overgrown or topple, and maintenance of the chapels and mausoleums became minimal. Just at the cemetery company ran out of funds entirely in 1975, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery was initiated as a non-profit organization. With their fundraising efforts, much of the overgrown cemetery has been restored and had “extensive, but sensitive, clearing.” The Friends are a registered charity, and they have the support of English Heritage. A Board of Trustees are elected from amongst the members, and the organization works through fundraising (from members and visitors) and grants to maintain the historic integrity of the cemetery. The Cemetery and its tours are entirely staffed by volunteers.
Two of the famous interments in East Cemetery that we got to see were Karl Marx and Douglas Adams. The graves were marvelously mixed, with people from various centuries buried side by side: scarcely legible, weathered stones leaning next to perfectly white memorials covered with recent flowers. There is something lovely to me about the chaotic recovery of nature that is underway here: some of the graves can hardly be seen under the ivy; some have been broken by the growing roots of trees; still others have brambles and fruits growing up along the stones. The newer interments are carefully maintained, some elaborate and some simple (“be still”)… but my favorites were the old ones, the ones that are maybe remembered but no longer visited – even their memorials are returning to the earth, to the the twining growth of trees and vines.
I wish I could do justice to the sweetness of the air and the silence there – I was moved, touched, and comforted by my experience with this place.
(Note to Karen: this is intended to serve as one of my three “extra” blog entries for class.)