I really love cemeteries. I realise that after that confession you are probably picturing me with a studded dog collar, black nail varnish and a crucifix tattoo. I can assure you that my only gothic phase was a brief attachment to a Morticia Adams Halloween costume when I was 20.
I’ve visited some beautiful cemeteries in my travels including Green Wood Cemetery in New York and La Recoleta in Buenos Aires. And now I can add Highgate East Cemetery to the list (I’m saving the West Cemetery for another day – it’s always good to delay a little gratification). The history of Highgate Cemetery is interesting so forgive me for pinching a bit of material from Wikipedia. Traditionally, parish churchyards have been used to bury the dead but, in the early decades of the 1800s, the churchyards in London had become full and were a dangerous health hazard. Families had taken to throwing the deceased straight into the sewage system to avoid re-using old graves. As a result, Parliament passed an act to make it legal for profit-making cemeteries and encouraged the opening of seven new cemeteries in the outskirts of London, known as the Magnificent Seven, including Highgate.
There are 170,000 people buried in 53,000 graves over 37 acres of land at Highgate. Hidden sporadically around the cemetery are a few names that you might recognise (look out for Karl Marx, Douglas Adams, Malcolm McLaren and Jeremy Beadle).
I’m always told that cemeteries are full of death but I think that they are full of love. Every winding path is lined with messages of adoration and heartfelt farewells. Nobody ever writes anything mean on a tombstone. I love to walk up and down the rows of graves, reading the inscriptions. It makes me think of my own family and friends and how lucky I am to have them. I feel humbled at the thought of how fragile and transient life is. And I can consider all of this in perfect peace and quiet, because it’s bad etiquette to be noisy in cemeteries, and people always respect the dead.