It’s an odd thing to do, to spend your day off visiting a cemetery when you have no connection to anyone there. No connection, that is, beyond the universal fate that binds everyone in its final embrace.
As one of the epitaphs succinctly puts it: “Do not grieve, we are all pilgrims on a journey to the same destination.”
Highgate Cemetery in north London has many pilgrims, more than 150,000 of them, from all stratas of society and all walks of life.
Their wealth, their importance, their vanities are submerged now beneath a sea of thick ivy, their status enveloped by a tide of roots and suckers.
The greenery flows over the headstones, obliterating the pious messages and the earnest promises that they will never be forgotten.
There’ll be no loved ones visiting many of these graves, only gawpers like myself, looking for clues to the personality of the person beneath the algae-encrusted stones and tangled undergrowth.
Obelisks, once so fashionable among the hoi polloi with their echoes of a mighty civilization, lurch at drunken angles, undone by London’s clay and poorly prepared foundations.The mighty family vaults that signpost merit and importance look overbearing and vulgar.
In places the heavy blocks have tilted and cracked, undermining the impression of precision and permanence. Worse still, some facades have slipped or broken away to reveal cheap brick linings; how very common, like a sewer tunnel route to the afterlife.
The cemetery’s best known and most visited resident is the political philosopher Karl Marx whose fat head sits atop a large memorial block that requires visitors to look up at him.
There were no more than a dozen people at his funeral in 1883 but as his ideas and influence spread more and more people came to see his grave.
Because he had originally been interred in a secluded area of the cemetery access was a problem so in 1956 he was dug up and moved to the current site – such is the price of fame.
A short walk away from him is the grave of George Eliot, aka Mary Ann Evans, author of Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch, Adam Bede and Silas Marner. It’s big, if unremarkable given her celebrity, and she’s surrounded by friends and progressive thinkers of her time.
Far less imposing is the grave of another author, Douglas Adams, who wrote the Hitchhiker’s Guide ToThe Galaxy, a simple grey slab in front of which, when I was there, was a beaker of pens and pencils.
Adams was the man who said: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they go by”.
Less imposing still is the final resting place of legendary folk guitarist Bert Jansch who died in 2011 and seems to have been hurriedly squeezed into a predominantly Polish section near the entry gate where a small plaque and a muddle of plant pots on yellowing, withered grass marks the spot.
Just a few yards from Jansch is Leslie ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, the Grenada-born, black superstar of 20s and 30s Britain, whose talent for the piano was only exceeded by his talent with the ladies. It all endly badly for him and you can read more about it here.”
Of all the epitaphs, I liked two in particular: TV presenter Jeremy Beadle who exhorted readers to: “Ask my friends” and the inscription on the stone of Janet Lockyer that simply stated: “Been there done that”.