Otium, Otii – At peace, leisure
A little history:
The cemetery was initially established in 1839 by a private company as an answer to those seeking to bury their dead outside of church grounds and according to their own rites. To ensure that the upper classes were tempted away from the convenience of burying their loved ones at local churches the cemetery set out to be a place of architectural splendour and beauty.
However this profit making situation soon encountered a problem as space ran out and thus income slowed. As a result the cemetery fell into neglect with vandals and the undergrowth causing irreversible damage to the graves. Nature was left to take over what man had failed to tend. In order to preserve this place of beauty and restore it to some resemblance of its former self it was taken over by a charity, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust and is now a non profit organisation run for public benefit.
If you are visiting now you will notice that the cemetery is split into a West and East side. The West was first to open and is only available to view by private tour. The East Cemetery is open to the public with an on the door fee of £3 per person (no concessions) going toward the upkeep and maintenance of the site.
Visiting a cemetery on one of London’s hottest days of the year would not be everyones cup of tea. However my avoidance of people (the living anyway) and appreciation of architectural splendour drove me to explore this little green space.
The reception area is little more than a shed. An elderly lady, struggling with till technology, printed me my ticket without a smile. Stepping from the shed and onto the pathway inside I was immediately struck with the scale of the immediate dedications, reminding me of the extravagance I have previously seen in ancient Rome. This top end of the cemetery was cultivated to the same standard as some of London’s top parkland with the hedges and flowers immaculately maintaned. A quad bike was parked to the edge of the tarmac pathway filled with the days trimmings. Immediately I was happy with my decision to come here.
The cemetery has many layers and can be explored in an hour, several hours, a day or more. The main pathway leads you on a tour of what have been considered the most famous graves including that of Karl Marx and Douglas Adams and takes less than an hour to amble around. From this main path a few well maintained but more natural paths of dirt allow for a slightly more off track viewing and finally for the brave it is possible to explore the natural overgrown pathways between the most cramped of the gravestones (often only a few feet wide). These provide an entrance way into the thickest of the ivy to see those who have been invisible for decades and are only visited by the squirrels and spiders that live here.
The cemetery has been renovated with exquisite skill, preserving what is left of some of the most spectacular carvings whilst also allowing a sense of romantic decay as the ivy naturally takes over and the roots of the overshadowing trees disturb the stone opening chasms in the paving that lay above the burials.
Although there is an overwhelming sense of age to the cemetery and in many ways it feels as though it is out of use, it is in fact still active with new burials added in any space available. On exploration of a side path I found an entirely new area of the cemetery with gravestones under 10 years old. A fresh heap of wet earth awaiting a headstone was a thundering crash back to the reality that this was not simply a place of art and that respect needed to be paid at all times.
As I strolled around some of the hidden graves that lay in a state of disrepair, bare and unkept, I found myself wondering who these people were, what their story was and if they had any family? The grave of a particular woman was one of great curiosity to me, her headstone was carved with two overlapping hearts, on one side was her name, birth date and the date of her death and on the other her husbands name and birth date but then just a dash -. This gaping hole in the carving struck a chord in my heart for a man who has already decided that this is where he will lay, a 20 year difference in their age restricting him from a lifetime with the love of his life.
I sat on a nearby bench, the heat had warmed the wood but the shade across my face provided a moment of cool relief. I looked at this gravestone for a long time, it was not one of the oldest or even the most intricate but I had found it and for a brief moment the memory of this lady, whomever she is, was rekindled. I imagined the old man sat at a cafe on this hot day, still dressed in shirt and tie as if oblivious to the heat, sipping on a cup of tea or perhaps a glass of merlot.
This all sounds very morbid but I assure you I left with the most warm and humble feeling inside me. Even if for a few moments I had a new appreciation for life and its complexities, the sweat on my brow and the blisters on my feet, for one day they would all be gone. With a new purpose and feeling calm and enlightened I left the cemetery, thanking the elderly lady who replied without looking up from her crossword.