Highgate Cemetery


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I’m still slowly processing photos from last month’s trip. As with the audio podcasts, what took two weeks to record will take at least two months to polish and share. But this is why we travel, isn’t it? And I’ve enjoyed reliving the memories of those few hours in North London’s Highgate Cemetery, a place devoted to memory — and the memory mostly of Victorians and Edwardians, at that. I would have to think the majority of its tenants would be pleased with its Tintern Abbey-esque atmosphere of romantic, ivy-clad ruin. I was certainly charmed myself. Stone angels that probably would’ve struck me as unbearably sentimental when they were new moved me to take photo after photo with their broken limbs and eroded faces. I hate the whole idea of angels, really. But an armless angel fallen face-down in an untended grave is a scene worthy of the cover art for an album by Sepultura or Entombed (bands I happen to like, by the way). So I guess I do have my sentimental side.

Space is of course at a premium in the British Isles; except for Karl Marx and a very few other elite tenants, the dead don’t seem to get any more elbow room than riders on the Tube. The great novelist George Eliot was shoved in there like everyone else, a few yards away from a small new neighborhood of Iraqi and African communists. This chaotic comradeship of the deceased invites alternate histories, the way memories freely associating in the mind find their way into new stories and poems. And the peculiar rituals we engage in to keep memories alive were much in evidence: one grave plot was littered with fresh oranges, another with pieces of dark slate, and still another with rose petals. Note the wash bucket on the recent grave of Iraqi Kurdish poet Buland al-Haidari — no doubt as potent a reference to his life and work as the dolphin figurine on Douglas Adams’ gravestone.

Highgate’s East Cemetery is, as far as I’m concerned, the way a proper cemetery should look. My maternal grandparents, Nanna and Pop-pop, are buried in a cemetery a few miles from here, and I don’t know how typical this is of contemporary American burial grounds, but the management only allows one kind of grave marker: the kind that’s flush with the ground. No plantings or offerings of any kind are permitted; even plastic flowers and grave blankets will be removed immediately. Why? Because such clutter interferes with the central mission of keeping the grass mowed. This is a final resting-place for those who worshipped at the altar of anesthetic cleanliness — which would certainly describe Nanna. She didn’t even like having book shelves in her house, because they were hard to dust! If Nanna knew how much I enjoyed Highgate Cemetery’s rampant ivy and brambles, she would roll over in her grave.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

20 Comments


  1. Beautiful pictures Dave. I must go back, haven’t been for many years. Whose is the amazing modern gravestone that simply says ‘DEAD’ ?

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  2. Lovely photos. I feel as you do about modern cemetaries, my parents lie in one such. When we were in London two years ago, staying with a daughter and her family, our tube stop was Highgate. How I wish we’d had the time to visit this cemetery (as well as many other places in London). Next visit will not be so convenient as they now live in a village in Sussex. Ah well, I so enjoyed seeing it through your particular lens, Dave, thanks!

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    1. Marja-Leena, I was staying a few blocks from another of North London’s grand old cemeteries, the one at Kensal Green (I think it was called), and I never got a chance to see that. RR visited it after I left and took some enticing photos, though — you may have seen them on her blog.

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    1. Great poem, Kristin! I’m pleased and honored that you found inspiration here.

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  3. How amazing these are! You could publish a book just of these, perhaps with some poems interspersed. Maybe that’s the next project? And what is a grave blanket?

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    1. Robbi, the enthusiasm of your response makes me think I wasn’t wasting my time meticulously processing all those photos for just the right light and color. Neat idea to do something more with them. Kristin’s already gotten a start. Maybe it could be a multi-author anthology…

      A grave blanket is a thing made of real or artificial flowers designed to cover the grave. There are also grave pillows. I don’t know how widespread this custom is, but it’s common here.

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      1. Absolutely lovely lovely pictures. And I’m so glad the weed-whacker made it in. But Dave, does this mean you were pulling my leg when you said a grave blanket is to keep the grave/dear departed warm during the winter? Because I totally fell for it.

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      2. Please do consider a project: these are gripping shots. Adrift through my head all day has been that one group of variously atilt stones, set bobbing by the green sea.

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  4. Lovely slideshow. I spent a lot of time in college exploring and photographing cemeteries and really fell in love with the old half-forgotten cemeteries much more so than the modern gardens of eternal rest. Maybe this will inspire me to someday scan and share some of those old photos.

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  5. Wonderful photos. Going back to England I am always so pleased to see old churchyards and cemeteries, for their profusion of greenness and growth. The cemeteries here are without a spot of green or any natural growth, but a desert of stone and marble chippings, with weird, lurid china flowers as grave ornaments, and then covered with a mass of potted chrysanths at Toussaint. Someone I recall reading speculated that the rural French were too close to the soil and and vegetative growth and decay to want it around them when they were dead; sterility and order were the thing, but I don’t know. We often say we don’t mind dying here (the healthcare being good), but we don’t want to be buried here.

    I’ve not been to Pere Lachaise, I’m sure it has much of the fascination of Highgate, but surely without the luxuriant plant life.

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    1. Interesting, Lucy–I took some photographs of Victorian porcelain grave ornaments when I was in Wales.

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  6. This photo set stirred my Anglophilia.

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  7. Dave, liked these and certainly agree that a bit of pruning often helps a sentimental angels. Though I think you are quite wrong to hate the whole idea of them if it’s because they are sentimental! Any being that regularly has to begin a conversation with “Fear not!” must be terrifying to contemplate.

    Love a grave ramble, and enjoyed this one very much.

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  8. “The cemetery offered more than one look, more than one feel. The tombstones came in a variety of ways. The oldest needed to be read with fingers, the words and numbers had been blown off by the years and the stuff years throw at a thing, so the names were only a letter here and a letter there, though the rock still stood. In the newer parts the tombstones tended to shine and stand clean and easy to read as a stop sign.” (The Death of Sweet Mister, Woodrell)

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