Monday, August 24, 2009

Bury My Bones Where They Won't Stink



A year ago I was roaming the streets of London and riding the Tube to my favorite destinations ... cemeteries.  Churchyards were the first burial places and it is apparent that many of those no longer survive, but London natives and visitors walk over them not realizing that bones lie beneath.  

Under common law, every parishioner and people who inhabited a parish, had a right to be buried in the parish churchyard or burial ground.  While you may see a few gravestones in churchyards, there are many unmarked, unknown graves.  A good example is the churchyard of St. Martin-in-the Fields which is estimated to have 60,000-70,000 burials in the churchyard. That suggests one on top of another in layers.  

Kensal Green, with 79 acres, was established as London's first public cemetery in 1827.  Many followed within the next few years, such as Highgate in 1839.  They were commercial ventures and in the 1850s urban churchyards were closed to burials.  Bodies were also being buried under the floorboards in chapels and school.  As they decayed the stench was overcoming.  A public cemetery would be a better choice for burial. 

Landscaped cemeteries were common in Italy, Sweden and France.  They were adopted in England as public cemeteries in the Victorian period.  The public cemeteries are extremely interesting with various types of stones plus styles of mausoleums. 

The first on my list of "must-see" was the Highgate Cemetery in northwest London.  There are two sections to the Highgate Cemetery, both different and interesting.  The west Highgate Cemetery is only open to tours.  Visitors climb a few steps to be greeted by dank darkness. Adjusting to it, there are gravestones that seem to perch on top of each other, covered with undergrowth, vines, moss and bushes.  A musty, earth smell hangs among the gravestones and only a true cemetery lover breaths deeply to enjoy it.  

Less overgrown cemeteries, such as Brompton Cemetery created in 1840, also contain gravestones that run into each other with barely room to wedge a foot between them.  Ravens perch on statues and the tops of stones, faithfully looking for pieces of food left by passer-bys.  

All of these are peaceful settings.  If you stop long enough to ponder the past, imagination takes over.  You can envision a funeral party, all attired in black, with a horse drawn hearse passing down the path in 1845, bringing a body for burial.  What has happened through the decades to their descendants?  Do they realize where their own are buried?  Or do they care? 

Someday I will return to London to explore more cemeteries, stop and pay respects to those who have gone before.  I may walk through a former churchyard and absorb the feeling of comfort that only comes to those who are obsessed with places of burial.  

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