Art of the Dead

January 31, 2010


highgate cemetry
Cemeteries not only host the body’s final resting place but provide its occupants with a platform from which to make their final first impression on the world. Victorians lapped up this artistic freedom. Caomhan Keane spends a hungover day among the dead at Highgate Cemetry.

Picture, if you will, 19th century London. Death plays a hefty role in working class life. Parents deny their children a comfortable existence so they can bury them in style, inner city churchyards overflow, body snatching is rife and the shallow graves provided fresh meat for scavenging animals. Decaying matter increases the spread of disease as it enters the water supply, while rumours of cadavers being tossed into the newly built sewage system give Victorian londoners a genuine fear they might end up in the shit while searching for the afterlife. This is not a good time to believe in the resurrection.

To allay their fears, Parliament authorised the creation of thehighgate cemetry2“magnificent seven”- a ring of cemeteries constructed on the outskirts of London. Built on the highest consecrated ground in the city, Highgate is the finest. Designed by architect Stephen Geary in 1839 it is more akin to a walk in the park than the factories of decaying flesh peddled by Geary’s inner city counterparts.

The real joy is the older West Cemetery, which is accessed only with a guided tour. A breeding ground for the stories that characterise a bygone era, we had hardly begun our ascent into the forest of the dead when we stumbled across the plot of James William Selbey. Images of horseshoes and whips on his tombstone mark his profession (coachman). A statue of Nero, the first lion born into captivity, marks the final resting place of George Wombwell, owner of London’s first travelling zoo while the world’s first heavy weight boxing champion Thomas Sayers is buried under a statue of his dog, Lion.

From Egyptian pyramids to Celtic crosses, weeping angels and hanging baskets, Highgate is awash with the final aesthetic statements of the deceased.

The Victorians were morbidly obsessed with death and Highgate was their Disneyland, with people coming from near and far to admire the decorative graves and magnificent mausoleums. None were more magnificent than the Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon.

In the centre of the cemetery an avenue of eight catacombs slice into the earth, leading up to a further 20 tombs, built around the roots of a cedar tree that pre-dates the cemetery by 150 years. The magnificent Egyptian architecture, which would have been brightly coloured in its day, is a fungal green now, but is no less pleasing to the eye.

Bram Stroker conceived his most frightening creation, Dracula, while sitting on a cracked tomb here. Highgate residents took this creation to heart and it led to the invention of the Highgate vampire. Reported sightings of a “grey figure” turned into a shit-fit between occult groups and escalated into a full on vampire hunt on Friday 13, 1970. To this day there has been no concrete evidence to suggest the figure actually exists but the legend was the basis for the Hammer classic Dracula AD.

As well as a source of creative inspiration, Highgate was also a place to settle old scores. Snubbed by society for his hard earned, rather than inherited, wealth, the Julius Beer mausoleum is a well aimed two fingers at the old money society that never took the banker and media mogul to their hearts.

Visiting the cemetery gives a fascinating glimpse into the lives, and more importantly the deaths, of Victorian londoners, whose fears and pretensions set the template for our own. It can also provide a pleasant day out.

Visiting Highgate cemetery

Entrance to the newer East Cemetery is £3, where you can pay your respects at Karl Marx’s final resting place.
The West Cemetery can only be accessed as part of a guided tour for £5.
Tours are hourly between 11-4pm on weekends and daily at 2pm during the week.

Closest tube: Archway.

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