A walk through Highgate Cemetery

Published : Apr 10, 2009 00:00 IST

THERE ARE FRESH flowers every day at Karl Marx's grave, the most perennially popular at Highgate Cemetery.-

THERE ARE FRESH flowers every day at Karl Marx's grave, the most perennially popular at Highgate Cemetery.-

ON one of the highest hills (131 metres) in north London, at the brim of a carefully cultivated leafy unruliness, stands a simple granite obelisk supporting a bust of Karl Marx. This is where Marx is buried. His grave is in Highgate Cemetery, which sprawls on either side of a brick-walled curving lane.

This is the quietest place in that noisy city, not even a muffled murmur of that great big city comes through. Even if the noise did get past the spacious Waterlow Park adjacent, the thick forest inside the cemetery would snuff it out. The 37 acres (14.973 hectares) of the East and West Cemetery, which border both sides of the undulating Swains Lane, is on top of Highgate Hill, which many centuries ago had a toll booth to collect tax from traders entering and leaving London.

By early 19th century, all the church cemeteries in London were so full that bodies had to be buried on top of each other with the topmost one being just a few inches below the surface. In those days, people in England believed that, to arise on Resurrection Day, one had to be buried. In 1832, the British Parliament authorised seven new burial grounds to accommodate the crush. These were known as the Magnificent Seven. Highgate West was one of them and the most popular. Its first recipients were in 1839. Since then, about 170,000 have been buried in 52,600 graves on both the East and West Cemeteries.

Slowly moving stately hearses with caparisoned horses and a panoply of well-dressed hired mourners, often accompanied by sombre musicians beating time, were a regular sight attracting many spectators in this popular cemetery. Within its sylvan perimeter are the remains of the rich, the famous, and the ordinary of the Victorian era.

They include adventurers, actors, aristocrats, authors, cricketers, doctors, explorers, journalists, engineers, magicians, musicians, newspaper owners, philosophers, poets, priests, politicians, revolutionaries, refugees, scientists, and thinkers. Common people too were buried here.

Robert Arthur Thomas (1825 -1903), a useful cricketer, who played in the first Test match against Australia in 1880 and then became a successful umpire, lies in anonymity in a weed-covered grave on the southern side of the Eastern Cemetery. However, the best attended funeral was that of 39-year-old Thomas Sayer in 1856, who was the last champion of bare-fisted boxing of a then very violent London. By the early 1960s, when cremations were legal, processions of ornate funerals stopped and both cemeteries did not have the money for their upkeep.

In 1975, the West Cemetery, which had become a maintained wilderness, was closed altogether as it was too expensive for funerals, and the East Cemetery was preserved better. It is now closed for visits during funerals.

The older West Cemetery was once part of a mansion owned by Sir William Ashurst, Mayor of London in 1693. After the cemetery was consecrated in 1839, Victorians came from miles around to enjoy the architecture of the tombs and get a birds eye view of London. Both were impressive.

The highlight of the 20-acre West Cemetery is the gloomy colonnaded Egyptian Avenue leading to the Circle of Lebanon, built around an ancient glowering cypress tree, a remnant of Ashursts garden, with catacombs skirting the edges. The view of London was somewhat deliberately blocked and spoiled later by the brash and quixotic Julius Beer (1836-1880), founder of The Observer. Fed up with the hypocrisy of London society, which shunned him even after he, born a Jew, became a Christian, Beer built a huge mausoleum with a garish gold and brilliant blue ceiling. Also buried in this cemetery is Henry Hugh Armstead (1828-1905), who made the grotesque marble sculptures in the Beer Mausoleum.

Despite such abundant opulence, the most perennially popular grave is No.32 in the East Cemetery. It is of Marx, who is buried here along with his wife Jenny, who predeceased him by 15 months, his housekeeper (Helena Demuth), a daughter and a grandson. Every day, there are fresh flowers on his celebrated grave. His relevance to modern times continues with his books still selling fast, even in the United States.

Strangely, of all his quotations this one is the most popular on websites in the U.S. at the moment: Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more of expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalised.

Marx is buried in the sunniest portion. It is in the north-north-east side of the cemetery, near a bend leading to which is a tarred road from the Swains Lane entrance. Marx was originally buried at the southern end of Highgate Cemetery in a rather obscure, unconsecrated corner. There was not even a gravestone in those days. Lenin was a regular visitor when he stayed in London in 1903. Rabindranath Tagore, who stayed in the adjacent Vale of Health (Hampstead Heath) in 1912, used to walk to this cemetery.

In the 1940s, the British Communist Party moved the remains of Marx and his family to its present prominent location because there were so many visitors anxious to see where the great thinker was buried. Thanks to Marx, this cemetery is no longer the dilapidated one of the 1960s. People from every nation in the world have been here and from them the Friends of Highgate Cemetery (FOHC), founded in 1981, get most of their funds to look after the restoration of the grounds. The FOHC ensures that the cemetery is maintained in manicured romantic decay, by trimming a bush here, removing some moss there and picking up fallen leaves just once in a while.

There are many other well-known people in this cemetery. There is a larkspur-covered fork in which is the grave (No.1) of Andrew Wilson Baird (1842-1908), who as the Superintendent General of Ports in India, Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), devised the technique of measuring tides, which is still followed.

Marxs side of the cemetery, the best maintained and the most easily accessible, has become a corner for people who fought against autocratic regimes in their countries. Their graves are simple but often with pungent messages like I shall never believe God plays dice with the world. Most of the names are of little-known people but from their headstones they appear to be gutsy fighters and worthy of deeper study.

In Marxs corner, most of the graves are usually simple slabs strikingly in contrast with the affluent splendour of the intricately decorated graves skirting the road. All the inhabitants are equally indifferent to the glory or the simplicity of the headstones above them. The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

There is Dr. Jamil Munir Abdul-Hamid (1939-1997) of the Iraqi Communist Party; Harinder Kaur Veriah (1966-2000), the Malayan-Indian socialist; the famous Dr. Yusuf Mahmood Daddoo (1909-1983), chairperson of the South African Communist Party; and Sello Moeti (1953-1988), a brilliant militant member of the African National Congress.

It is the resting place for many, who chose to oppose injustice and discrimination all over the world. This corner is actually a compliment to Englands tolerant tradition that has sheltered people of diverse opinions and ideologies. To the right of Marxs grave is buried Claudia Jones (1915-1964), the black freedom campaigner, who started the now famous Notting Hill Carnival.

Many of the graves, especially of soldiers and colonials, are decorated with statuary and embellished with intricate imperial emblems and wreaths. The grave of Lieutenant Colonel John Pitt Kennedy (1796-1879) could have some interest for people in our Border Roads Organisation, for it was he who realigned the India-Tibet road from Shimla and converted it from a treacherous path to a commercial artery in the 1860s.

The forest lit up by wild flowers and occasionally by the sun, even in winter when the trees are bare, with its foxes and hares is dense enough to conceal many graves completely, but it is worth the trouble to hack through the burrs and the brambles to see some unusual gravestones. Buried under a well-adorned tomb lies one Edward Richard Woodham (1831-1886), who was one of the survivors of the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854 but has strangely not been decorated.

There are graves that are simple and those that are adorned garishly. There is a most unusual grave with a caricature on its headstone. It is of one Tom Wakefield and he is simply and strangely referred to as Mother. No one could explain why. Perhaps the FOHC could publish a history of these graves.

The western section has more outrageous Gothic style mausoleums and tombs with over-elaborate and ornate carvings and frescoes. Since these decorations are fragile, only guided tours are allowed into this section, unlike the eastern one where one is free to roam at will.

There is an entrance fee for both cemeteries. No tourist spot in the British Isles can be seen without a tourist fee, which in case of the Highgate Cemetery is an unusually low 1. The dead are still being interred here, but the pressure on space has eased tremendously since crematoria have become more popular since the 19th century.

Some of the eminent people who are buried here are well known throughout the world. Michael Faraday (1791-1867), who constructed the first electric motor, lies here. Herbert Spencer, the famous English philosopher and economist, some of whose admirers had not blushed to compare him with Aristotle, is buried across the road from Marx under a big simple stone that has only his name. The famous Henry Gray (1820-1861) of Grays Anatomy, which still is studied by medical students, is buried in the western side.

Christina Georgina Rosseti (1830-1894) is buried here, as is her brother Dante Rossetis wife. There is a ghoulish story here: Dante, in a fit of grief, buried a book of his latest poems, with her. Later, when he needed money, he dug up the grave one October night in 1869 and recovered the book that had become entangled in the hair and, after disinfecting it, sold it for a lot of money, thus making this ghastly excess very profitable.

The many tombs, vaults and mausoleums built with extra grand Gothic flourish, preferred by the Victorians, along winding leafy paths, give some sections of the densely wooded East and West Cemeteries a scary appearance. A strong wind adds to the gloomy garden-of-death atmosphere by rubbing branches and rustling through scattered dry leaves. Vines and roots are allowed to grow and they tilt some tombstones. The effect is chillingly dramatic. Perfect setting for ghosts and nasty spirits. Beautifully carved tombstones lie hidden under immense leafy canopies.

Inevitably, there is a myth about the Highgate vampire. It was thus natural that a Dracula movie with a fitting bloodthirsty title, Taste the Blood of Dracula, starring Christopher Lee was shot here in 1968.

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