Highgate Cemetery, north London, first opened its gates in 1839, one of the earliest municipal cemeteries to be founded in the UK. The two separate burial grounds, East Cemetery and West Cemetery, contain the final resting places of more than 170,000 citizens of London, among them many celebrities and the rich and famous of the past two centuries.
The grounds are vast, especially the older and more characterful West Cemetery, which can now only be visited as part of a guided tour. Highgate West is a sprawling metropolis of the dead. It is easy to lose one’s way amongst the meandering paths and rows of great tombstones, weather-beaten and crumbling, the inscriptions lost to the handiworks of time and the elements. Some have partially sunk into the soft moss-covered earth, whilst others have toppled over, giving up the ghost and calling it a day: not for decades has anybody stopped to stand and think of the inhabitant; nobody now to read the name which lies hidden, face down on the path.
Twigs snap underfoot; rotting bark peels away from ivy-clad trunks and becomes compost, feeding new life beneath the ground. The eternal cycle continues: death into life; life into death. The mortal coil never ends.
This is no place for joy. Even the marble cherubs weep, their tears frozen for all time on their dark faces. Cold copies of loyal animal companions rest for all eternity alongside long dead masters and mistresses.
The atmosphere is eerie; the near silence powerful, punctuated only by birdsong and the movement of the wind through the branches. Occasionally, the sound of distant voices serves as reassurance that not all in this place lie dead in the ground. The treetops converge in places to form dark covers which block out all light. Here, in these dark places, are found the oldest tombs, concealed behind bracken and fern, inaccessible, gone from memory. The air is damp and musty, the smell of the past left to its own devices.
A new scent appears on the breeze as the path twists to the left: wild garlic. Pungent and lively, it announces the presence of new growth amongst decay. The tour guide, an intriguing fellow in an eccentric outfit straight out of a Merchant –Ivory production, calls a halt at various intervals to share with us a story of one of the famous internees. We hang on his every word, lapping it up, entering into the spirit. Tales from beyond the grave, of jealousy, murder, stories of hearts broken by grief, of spies and nobility, masters of industry, artists and poets; tales to breathe new life into bone and dust. Death is the great leveller, but some stories grab the imagination better than others.
Unexpectedly, a magnificent gateway comes into view marking the entrance to an extraordinary neighbourhood of the dead. A gated community like no other, Highgate’s Egyptian Avenue is a winding terrace of mausoleums on a grand scale. Each abode has its own front door, the name of the occupiers chiselled into the grey stone. Typically Victorian and overstated, only the wealthy and the grand reside in this eternal Land of the north London Pharaohs.
Across the metaphorical Styx, the links to the East continues into the Circle of Lebanon, a ring of ornate and beautiful tombs built around an ancient Cedar tree which has stood in the spot long before the Cemetery. Double doors of solid oak are closed to the world outside, the dead and their secrets locked away within. What fear of death and what clinging to life must have inspired such a resting place with four solid walls and a front door.
Our lilac-clad guide invites us to enter the catacombs. Dark and menacing, the open entrance dares us to step over the threshold. Inside, the light is scare and the air is dingy and thick. There is no life in here. Against both walls are stone shelves laden with wooden coffins in different states of preservation. Battered by the years, row upon row are thick with dust and cobwebs. Nails, orange from oxidation, barely hold in place the skewed lids. Beyond this point is out of bounds. Ahead of us in the gloomy distance we can see the sinister sight of white bones escaping through gaps in the rotted containers. I feel like I am intruding here into a private place where the dead are entitled to be left alone.
Across the road we enter the East Cemetery. The contrast between the two is marked. Here is a place of celebrating life as much as mourning its passing away. The Victorians have been left behind in the East and the perspective has changed. Here the light shines through the sparser trees. We have no guide here and are free to roam and seek out the well-known names and the quirky markers of their resting places. There is laughter as more stories are shared of well-loved books whose authors lie beneath the soil and artists whose own epitaphs are no less dazzling than the works they created in life. Cameras click, footsteps fall. Grave stories seem less grave here.