An unexpectedly uplifting outing
I fully appreciate this is going to sound a bit odd. But if you have a couple hours to spare, and better still it's a bright sunny day, is there an old cemetery anywhere near you? (See? I told you this was going to sound odd. But bear with me here). Because if you do, and if there is, then I honestly can't think of a more fascinating, moving and surprisingly uplifting way to spend those hours.
The stories that the epitaphs on the headstones tell, about the occupants of the graves, the period in history when they died, the sort of person they were and the sort of life they lived, are more immediate and more absorbing than any history book. And although looking at graves and tombstones obviously can't fail to remind you of the fragility of life and finality of death, it also reminds you of just how much can be achieved in even the shortest of lives, especially if that is being deeply loved and held in the hearts and thoughts of those you leave behind. I really hope I'm not alone in finding that uplifting rather than distressing.
I've always been a sucker for churches and graveyards, especially old ones in little villages and towns. But it was, to my great shame as it's only a couple of miles from where I live, only recently that I visited one of the earliest and possibly one of the most beautiful private garden cemeteries in England, Highgate Cemetery in north west London.
A quick bit of history about this glorious place then I'll let the pictures do the talking: landscaped garden cemeteries were set up on the edge of towns because by the 1820s church graveyards were becoming overcrowded and unsanitary. In the 1830s and 1840s eight of these were created around London. Highgate was the third to open in 1839. Its intention was that it would attract custom by 'the splendour of its architectural features and the beauty of its landscape.'
Interestingly, cemeteries were also intended as tourist attractions, with visitors encouraged to be improved by reading the epitaphs and admiring the art of the memorials. In fact they were so popular, ways had to be found to keep visitors out. So you see, it's not just me!
During the 20th century, the company that ran it collapsed and Highgate became neglected and overgrown. Whilst other private cemeteries suffered a similar fate, most were taken over by their local councils. Highgate, on the other hand, was rescued by a charity and is now run as a not for profit. The money from entry fees (£4 for adults, children under 18 and members free) goes towards the extensive maintenance, which is done keeping a sensitive eye on the atmosphere of romantic decay that is its greatest attraction.
The cemetery is home to many of the area's best-known residents. Most famously, Karl Marx who is buried along with his wife, daughter, grandson and....er, housekeeper (I'm saying nothing).
Other more recent residents - the cemetery is still open for new burials, though they're necessarily limited - include impresario and rock musician Malcolm McLaren (I especially love his epitaph)
Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (look at what visitors leave at his grave. It's brilliant)
And in a fortunately private part of the cemetery, George Michael (can you imagine how over-run by visitors it would be otherwise?)
As you can see, there are no restrictions on the design - or size - of the headstones, memorials or messaging. As a result the variety, artistry, poignancy and often humour of the stones and their engravings is what makes this such a memorable and fascinating place to visit. Here are a selection of some of my favourites. Headstones/memorials first:
Now for some of the engravings and epitaphs:
I really, really hope this was his actual name
Check out the last thing on the list about George
And finally, this one starts off clearly enough, but gets a little....well, less clear, as it goes on. Whoever wrote it certainly had a lot to say about Simon (and yes, those are coloured words on the stone. Never seen that before)