I love graveyards. I probably wouldn’t mention it on a first date, but I definitely love them. I find their combination of popular culture, social history and raw emotion utterly compelling. They’re like a social commentary echoing down the centuries: rich people have big headstones and live long lives, poor people have humble headstones and die young – often in their 20s and 30s. The contrast between rich and poor is shockingly stark.
Then there’s the way people’s deepest emotions are written in stone for any passing stranger to see. My heart always aches for anguished parents who have lost an infant child, their grief and pain forever etched in granite.
And finally pop culture. I love the way graves reflect the popular culture of their day, such as tombs in the shape of obelisks reflecting a time when everyone was fascinated by ancient Egypt. I know exactly how they felt – I actually got distracted by a website on Egyptian columns before writing this blog, and nearly didn’t get around to writing it at all…
So imagine my joy when I discovered that my dear friend Devon shares my slightly strange passion. We started with a trip to Nunhead Cemetery in south east London, which is described by Wikipedia as one of the Magnificent Seven (a brilliant name for the ring of Victorian cemeteries built around what were then the outskirts of London). Dev added spice to our adventure by printing out details of some of the fancier graves and we competed for who could find them first. It became a bit of an undignified cemetery-dash towards the end as we were running out of time, but kudos to Dev for coming up with such a great idea.
And that’s not the only fun we had. It turns out the rich of the 19th century were not at all worried about privacy and anonymity, and loved nothing better than to inscribe their address on their tomb. So the next time we had a free afternoon, Dev and I planned a tour driving past their houses. Looking for the streets dead people used to live on is literally the most fun you can have with a map of south east London and a spare two hours.
Exhilarated by our Nunhead excursions, we arranged a visit to the jewel in the crown of London cemeteries: Highgate Cemetery in north London. It’s actually divided into two, and super-organised Dev booked us on a tour of the West Cemetery. Not only is this the half with the most impressive architectural features, from the Egyptian Avenue to the Circle of Lebanon, but – cemetery geeks rejoice – the tour takes you all the most interesting places and tells you loads of London graveyard facts. Unfortunately, in all the excitement we forgot to leave time to visit the East Cemetery – the half that contains all the famous people. Is there anything more disappointing than schlepping all the way to north London only to run out of time and miss the tomb of Karl Marx?
If I’m honest, touring cemeteries is probably not an opportunity my children would leap at, and Mr B isn’t keen either. But ask around, I’m sure you must have a Dev amongst your friends. Alternatively, I’ve recently heard that Brompton Cemetery in south west London is jam packed with interesting stuff – anyone fancy a trip?
Tours around the West Cemetery at Highgate cost £12 and must be booked in advance if you go on a weekday. For up-to-date prices, times and tour schedules for the East and West Cemeteries please see the Highgate Cemetery website.