Just down the road from where I’m staying in north London, the Kensal Green Cemetery houses the mortal remains of many eminent Victorians. Like Highgate Cemetery, which I visited in 2011, it’s one of the “magnificent seven” garden-style cemeteries in London. And just as at Highgate, the groundskeepers’ gardening style is permissive in the extreme, favoring unpruned trees and shrubs and rampant ivy.
It’s a great place to meditate on the ephemerality of all things. Many of the graves and mausoleums are in a state of near-collapse, and 100-year-old sculptures and stonework have eroded in alarming ways.
One of the interesting things that happens with age is that the worst sort of kitsch comes to appear almost graceful.
Even in just a decade or two, genteel decay can transform a brightly painted, mass-produced Virgin of Guadelupe statue into a unique, almost transcendent work of art.
One tomb appeared to be guarded by the angels of leprosy,
while other guardian figures had apparently gone blind from staring at the sun
or green with grief.
Nature has not been equally unkind to all. Sir William Casement’s sarcophagus with its retinue of four servile telamons supporting an absurd entablature still seems to be in fine shape.
Nor is nature the only inflicter of indignities upon this cemetery’s many and varied memorials.
Even the struggles of groundskeepers to preserve some stones from the ravages of ivy leave a mark in the form of ivy ghosts,
and other upkeep efforts provide unintentionally ironic commentaries on the whole memorializing business.
A few of the cemetery’s older inhabitants appear not to have required much embellishment beyond their bare names,
though it seems narrow-minded of them not to have at least provided a perch for birds.
In the end, the profusion of maimed angels and architectural mash-ups didn’t really manage to distract us from the bald fact of the sealed door beyond which no living thing can pass.