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The city of the dead inspires the living

Highgate Cemetery is the final resting place of some 170,000 Londoners, among them the famous, the famous and the ordinary. Since the pandemic began, its leafy streets have taken on a new meaning for some in the city.


LONDON – Vines crawl up the rocks, tilted. The roots pass over the graves as if reclaiming them for the earth. On a toppled cross, a message: “Peace, Perfect Peace.”

This is the final resting place of about 170,000 Londoners, among them George Eliot, Karl Marx and Henry Moore.

Perched on a steep hillside overlooking the capital city, Highgate Cemeterya Victorian graveyard still in use today, a mass of ruins partially submerged by a forest that grew around it.

A stroll through its winding trails is to experience a catalog of Victorian lives, big and small, dynasties and distinguished citizens, as well as the Victorian way of dying. Many people in 19th century England’s growing middle class prepared all of their working lives for a magnificent funeral and burial site as a way to prove their worthiness to the public. get into heaven – often leaving little or nothing for their survivors.

Though that world is long gone, for many today Highgate is simply a welcome refuge from the sprawling city below, especially in the age of Covid.

“It’s a peaceful city of the dead, as opposed to a city of the living below,” said Ian Dungavell, chief executive officer of the Friends of Highgate Ce Nghia Trust, a group that saved the site from derelict more in the 1980s and now. manage it.

During Britain’s first shutdown, when people were allowed to leave their homes just to buy essentials and exercise, cemeteries began to see a spike in visitors as Londoners looking for secluded outer spaces to escape to – and to avoid the virus.

Dr Dungavell said the site has also created a new buzz because so many people’s lives have been touched illness and death during a pandemic. Britain has recorded around 160,000 deaths since it began in early 2020.

“A large number of people have died during the course of the pandemic, in this country and around the world,” he said. “I think very few people can get through a pandemic and not think about their own death.”

On an early February morning, the daffodils were just beginning to pierce the soil between the rows of tilted tombstones, and a twinkling light peeked through the trees that had grown here for decades. be forgotten. The gothic beauty of the overgrown cemetery seems far from what the designers intended.

Established in 1839 on a site with sweeping views of the city, Highgate Cemetery is one of the Victoria’s “Magnificent Seven” commercial graveyards in London, the first to be built on the outskirts of town. to help ease the burden on overcrowded church complexes.

But the once manicured car fell into disrepair shortly after World War II, when its owner went bankrupt. Due to neglected maintenance, weeds, vines and self-seeding plants have taken over. And the vandalism became more frequent.

In the 1980s, a group called the Friends of Highgate Trust rescued the site. The team maintains the site and welcomes visitors, for a small fee, and strives to ensure access for the families of those buried there.

The west side of the cemetery opens first and includes the most elaborate tombs, tombs designed to take their occupants into the afterlife, while the east side has more modern graves. .

The center of the west side is the “Egyptian Avenue”, where there is a row of cellars with iron gates simulating the tombs of the pharaohs. Mortar now falls from the brick below.

Among them is the resting place of Radclyffe Hall, a famous poet and novelist known for his semi-autobiographical book “Lonely Well,” which tells a lesbian love story, and a mate her, Mabel Veronica Batten, a famous singer – all this at a time when gay criminal law was often brutally enforced.

Many of the graves provide clues to the lives of those who lie there: A sleeping lion atop the grave of the famous owner of a Victorian travel camp, a mourning dog at the foot of the owner’s stele.

It’s a field of graves – a field of loss – and you can’t help thinking about where you fit in and knowing it’s going to happen to you, and life goes on, Dr. Dungavell said. continue.

At the tomb of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former KGB officer turned enemy of the Kremlin, who was buried in Highgate in 2006 after being poisoned at a hotel in London (most likely at the behest of Russian President Putina 2016 British investigative report said), a truncated column symbolizing a life cut short.

A few steps away, the tombstone of a young woman – Emma Wallace Gray – details her horrific death at the age of 19, explaining in detail how her dress caught fire and she suffered severe burns. She died 10 days later, on October 20, 1845.

Her epitaph reads: “In my youth when others liked to cling to life, I prayed for a mid-death.

At the foot of her grave, drops of snow glimmered in the ground, their white flower clusters glimmering like mourning heads.

These sad epitaphs and stories of lost lives have proven appealing to inner travelers looking for time to themselves.

Licia Proserpio, 37, an Italian scholar with bright blue hair and a love of history, weaved a narrow path between the tombs and paused for a moment at one site. She said her visit gave her some time to reflect on herself.

“You can wander with your thoughts,” she says.

Mandy Wootton and Lynn Cook, who visited Highgate that same day, say the cemetery has prompted conversations about end-of-life decisions – whether they want to be buried or cremated, and how they want to be. tribute. But it was also an experience of a lifetime, they said.

Ms Cook said: “It’s about that – live now, agonizingly, old age saying.

Perhaps the most famous person to be buried at Highgate is Marx, whose impressive tomb on the east side of the cemetery features a colossal bronze bust that not everyone admires. Set amidst a pile of graves of other famous socialist figures, it attracts visitors from all over the world. It is also the site of several vandalism in recent years.

Alex Keros, 32, and his partner, Irene Pappa, 30, both Greek and living in London, recently had a particular interest in visiting Marx’s mausoleum.

“We are more or less affiliated politically – we are ideologically left-wing,” Mr. Keros said. “But also a lot of poets and literary figures are buried here.”

The eastern cemetery also has many newer graves, their headstones jutting out of the hillside like crooked teeth. And the epitaphs are more personal: Gone are the days when Victorian piety dominated the old part of the cemetery. Instead are excerpts of a life.

Because Patrick Caulfield, a famous British painter often associated with Popular Art and who passed away in 2005, the message he left behind was a direct one. On his granite stair tread design spelled out in bold cut letters is a simple word: “DEA D.”

Nearby is the grave of Jeremy Beadle, who passed away in 2008. “Writer, presenter, curator of quirks. Ask my friends,” his epitaph reads.

And on one street is “Gordon Belle (Middle name Ernest, though he doesn’t take it seriously.)”

Two friends perplexedly looking at a map of the cemetery’s winding trails, Kristin Brooks-Dowsett, 33, and Claudia Kowalczyk, 32, who spent the day exploring the outdoors together, said they enjoyed it. love to learn about the life lived.

“I think it tells these great stories,” said Ms. Brooks-Dowsett. “I don’t think we tell stories enough these days.”

She said she had visited Highgate before and that she was comfortable with the idea of ​​death. It helps that her mother is a funeral director in her native Australia.

“I am not afraid of death; Are you afraid to die? ‘ she turned to her friend.

“Absolutely,” said Miss Kowalczyk, without missing a beat.

“I don’t,” replied Miss Brooks-Dowsett. “I think it will be nice.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/18/world/europe/london-highgate-cemetery-dispatch.html The city of the dead inspires the living

Fry Electronics Team

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