Is it weird to love cemeteries?

We’ve been at it again, me and my good friend Devon.  Stalking the dead.  This time we’ve been visiting Brompton Cemetery, where the dearly departed of West London are interred.  What could be more joyful on a crisp December morning than stepping amongst the tombs of those who have been loved and lost and reading inscriptions about their lives?

Brompton is one of the Magnificent Seven – the fabulously-named ring of ‘garden cemeteries’ built in the late Georgian and early Victorian period to relieve the pressure on London’s crowded ancient churchyards.  And for keen cemetery-visitors like Dev and myself, it does not disappoint.

It is positively bijoux compared to vast Highgate Cemetery and rambling Nunhead.  The well-maintained graves are packed tightly together like a giant game of dominoes, as if with a mighty push you could send a ripple of falling tombstones that would run all the way round the cemetery.  I like my graveyards densely packed – all the better for seeing as many dead people as possible in the time you have available.

bromptonBrompton has some fancy mausoleums and some simple haeadstones, and at the southern end is a rather beautiful chapel – built at vast expense and nearly bankrupting its investors – which looks like a mini-version of the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford.  And who doesn’t love the Radcliffe Camera?

For those who enjoy variety, Brompton’s inhabitants represent a good mix of the famous, the slightly well-known and people who were possibly somebody at the time, but are now quite forgotten.  I always find it strange to think everyone who knew or cared about someone is dead, yet here I am reading about their lives a hundred years later.

Here’s some of the highlights from mine and Dev’s latest outing…

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To live in the heart of those we love is not to die

This tombstone is not damaged, it was designed like this.  I think its solid simplicity speaks volumes about the General.  Clearly Bill was a man of few words and no messing.  I respect that about him.

The same can’t be said of the next lady:

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To the memory of Blanche Roosevelt Macchetta… By her brilliant accomplishments and rare graces of mind and person she gave distinction in the world of literature and art to the name of Blanche Roosevelt.

I can’t help feeling she might have written that eulogy herself, although in fairness she has her own page on Wikipedia, so maybe I’m too cynical…

I do love a Latin inscription, particularly if it’s a mosaic.  This little beauty is on the floor of the family vault of Herbert Fitch.

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Deeds not words!

Other members of the family buried in the vault get little more than their names and ages, but the eldest son gets a poem:

Come unexpectedly! Give me no warning.

But in a brighter land, bid me ‘Good Morning!’

Rather lovely, I think.

I think the gates below look like they come from the film set for Cleopatra, but they are actually the entrance to the catacombs – I’m not sure whether the snakes are there to keep visitors out, or the dead in!

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The next lady gets a lovely inscription, although I can’t help feeling that the author (her husaband) had obviously run the poor woman ragged.

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In loving memory of my beloved wife Elizabeth Baker… who was a charming companion, a helpmate under all difficulties, a comforter in sorrow, a true wife and sincere friend and now alas the most blessed memory of mine age.

The inscription on the grave below is in Russian so I’ve no idea what it says.  I am filling in the blanks by imagining that she is a Russian aristocrat who fled her homeland during the Russian revolution.  Feel free to investigate and correct me.

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Sadly, despite being quite large, the monument below doesn’t take a good picture – and for some reason the statues around it are all headless.  But I love the idea that the community were so swelled with pride at Robert’s rowing achievements that they all chipped in to give him a good send off.

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This monument was erected by public subscription by the warm friends and admirers of Robert Coombes, champion sculler of the Thames and Tyne.

Rumours abound that this Egyptian-style mausoleum is, in fact, a working time machine.  And I don’t see why it shouldn’t be, since it looks very much like it might be a Tardis.  Although no-one let me in when I knocked…

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Mausoleum of Hannah Courtoy who conveniently inherited a fortune from her husband and invested it in this lovely monument to herself (and her daughters).

And lastly, a nod to science:

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To John Snow MD. Born at York March 15th 1813, died in London June 16th 1858.  In remembrance of his great labours in science, of the excellence of his private life and character.  This monument (with the assent of Mr William Snow) has been erected over his grave by his professional brethren and friends.

I’ve included John Snow because I once watched a very interesting documentary about him, and I thought it would be selfish to keep my learning to myself.  By mapping cases of cholera, Snow was able to demonstrate that they clustered around water pumps, showing that it was water-borne, and not caught by breathing ‘foul air’.  His systematic approach (i.e. using evidence, instead of making stuff up), means he is often cited as the founder of epidemiology. Go John Snow!

Hungry for more stuff about cemeteries, but don’t know where to get it?  Why not read my exciting blog about Highgate and Nunhead.  It’s got all of the fun of Brompton but less of the photos – enjoy!

 

Getting to Brompton Cemetery

The nearest London Underground & Overground station is West Brompton (District Line, Wimbledon branch, and London Overground): turn right out of the station, and the North Gate and Lodges are within two minutes’ walk.

Earl’s Court Station (Piccadilly and District Lines) is within ten minutes’ walk to the north: turn left out of the Warwick Road entrance and walk south along Warwick Road to Old Brompton Road.

Find out more about the Cemetery on the Friends of Brompton Cemetery website.

Victorian cemeteries rock: you read it here first

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.

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Highgate Cemetery

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…

cemetery13So 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.

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Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, Highgate Cemetery

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.

Nunhead Cemetery is free to visit – check Southwark Council website for opening times – and there is also a free tour once a month – details are on the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery website.

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I love this simple monument to Thomas Wing in Nunhead Cemetery.  It reads: Beloved and regretted by the friends of his youth and old age.  He left a name to blessed by generations of poor blind persons for whose benefit he bequeathed in trust to the Clothworkers Company of London the sum of £70,000, government, 2 1/2% annuities for annual pensions of £20 each, without conditions as to sex, age or place of birth.