So. This weekend was Open House for a lot of the buildings in London, which means that, if I chose to wait in line, I could get in for free. But we all know that I don’t like to wait, so I went on a cemetery crawl instead. There is a collection of cemeteries in London called The Magnificent Seven and they were built in the 19th century during a population explosion in London. I visited Highgate Cemetery last summer to see the resting place of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, as well as Dante’s wife, muse, and lifelong passion, Elizabeth Siddal. He buried a book of poetry with her body when she died only to later exhume her grave when he encountered hard times. He removed the book and legend has it that a strand of her golden hair accompanied the book. The Magnificent Seven are now kept in a state of managed neglect and they are truly a sight to see.
West Brompton Cemetery was the first on my list to visit. Like the others, it was commissioned by Parliament to relieve the strain on the cemeteries of inner London. West Brompton is noted for being a source of inspiration to Beatrix Potter. Many of the names from her books can be found on the headstones scattered throughout the grounds. There is even a Peter Rabbett interred within the walls of the cemetery. West Brompton can also be seen in several contemporary films, the most recent of which being Guy Ritchie’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes.
After wandering around West Brompton, snapping photos, and listening in on passing tour guides, I made my way past the columns of Chelsea fans using the cemetery as a shortcut to the football pitch and once more embraced the Underground. My next stop was the Tower Hamlets Cemetery, a much more wooded and overgrown place than West Brompton. I entered the cemetery and immediately the sound of the nearby motorway was dampened almost to the point of silence. Tower Hamlets was cooler and creepier because of the trees. Almost everything was cast in shadow and most of the headstones were obscured. But I did what I do best: wander. I stepped off the beaten path to see some of the more secluded headstones and stumbled upon a fox. Absolutely adorable! But it ran off quickly and I didn’t get a clear shot. Just the tip of a red, bushy tail whipping out of sight…
Having enough of wandering around a creepy (yet beautiful) cemetery, I made my way home. It was getting to be late in the afternoon and there wasn’t much else I could do for the day. But it left me thinking about the mark that people leave behind. The tombs that are built, either by the deceased or their loved ones, can be incredibly ornate and overly large. What is it about human nature that drives us to build these monuments to our existence? There is an idea in some beliefs that the body has to be preserved for resurrection to occur, but at the same time John Donne wrote in his Devotions that if, in Christianity, an outward display of good works meant one was more inclined toward salvation, then perhaps the sins of the soul were also reflected on the body as sickness and deformity. So is the body and burial still necessary for salvation and resurrection in Christian belief or do we as a Western Civilization bury our dead merely to preserve their memory for our own comfort? People have been buried for millennia. Look at the Giza Pyramids. They have to be the largest tombs ever built. But the Norse traditions ranged from ship burial to funeral pyre. So, again, are burial practices simply a manner in which the living pay their respects to the deceased?