Sunday, September 19, 2010

Tour of Deathly Repose: Part 1

Some may think it morbid, but I find cemeteries peaceful, picturesque, and inspiring. Rolling hills of soft grassy knolls dotted with historical reminders of those who came before. Some of these markers display recognizable names of people who have achieved greatness and who are remembered. And some with names of the every day wives, husbands, and children who have lived and gone. Their existence left for us by the etched cement above their graves.
A statue of a sleeping angel in Highgate Cemetery
A particularly famous memorial site is Highgate Cemetery in London, which is a registered park and garden of specific historic interest by English Heritage. Parliament passed an act creating new private cemeteries, Highgate Cemetery being one which opened in 1839. Previously, people were buried in churchyards or on church-owned burial grounds. It was the custom to pay the parish clergy a funeral fee, which would have been paid had the burial occurred on consecrated ground. However, there just was not any additional room available in the old burial grounds and therefore these new cemeteries were able to provide interment for those who owed no loyalty to the established Church.
A large gravestone for the family grave of William Tait with the gravestone of Henry Nathaniel Belchier (d. 1850) in the foreground.
Seventeen acres of land that had been the grounds of Ashurst Estate, down the hillside from Highgate Village, was purchased for the founding of Highgate Cemetery. When the cemetery was dedicated in 1839, 15 acres were consecrated for use by the Church of England and 2 acres for "Dissenters". By 1854, the cemetery was extended by an additional 20 acres on the other side of its Swains Lane site. This new ground, named the East Cemetery, opened in 1856 and was accessible from the now West Cemetery by a tunnel beneath Swains Lane.
An anchor carved into the rustic pedestal of the Johnson family grave in the East Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery became a popular cemetery and one of London's most fashionable as it attracted a variety of residents. Among the actors, writers, scientists, and a swarth of everyday Victorians, some of the famous people interred in Highgate Cemetery include Karl Marx, Michael Faraday, George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, and the model for many pre-Raphelite artists Elizabeth Siddal.

The double paneled and arcade shaped gravestone of the Cassels family in the West Cemetery, seen through a gap between two gravestones in the foreground
Though a memento mori to the passing of time and our mortality, large cemeteries such as Highgate Cemetery, are architectural tributes, as any cathedral or temple, to our history and our ancestors. Perhaps in addition to being a reminder of death, they can also be a reminder to live and "gather ye rosebuds while ye may."
The moss covered sculpture of an open book on a tomb carved with trefoil arches in the West Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery Website -
The Victorians by A.N. Wilson
English Heritage Website -
English Heritage: National Monuments Records Website -

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