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.