Mystery, Melancholia, And Marx At Highgate Cemetery

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MYSTERY, MELANCHOLIA, AND MARX AT HIGHGATE CEMETERY

Over 170,000 people are buried in Highgate Cemetery in 53,000 graves. The eastern part of the cemetery is accessible with or without a guided tour. Visits to the western side are possible but by guided tour only. The cemetery is a 10-minute walk from Archway tube station.

Highgate Cemetery, Swain’s Lane, Highgate, London N6 6PJ

Admission to the East Cemetery costs £4 for adults without a tour; a guided tour costs £8. The guided tour of the West Cemetery costs £12 for adults and includes admission to the East Cemetery. Kindly check the Highgate Cemetery website for more details.

READ JAMES BLOODWORTH’S STORY

Advertising itself as one of England’s “greatest treasures”, Highgate Cemetery in North London has been the final resting place for many famous British residents. Opened in 1839 and enclosed by a prison-like wall which runs up Swain’s Lane, the necropolis contains some of the most brilliant architecture you are likely to find in any Victorian graveyard – or any graveyard, for that matter.

The first noticeable thing about the cemetery is its rather shabby-genteel aesthetic. Indeed, it is rare to experience such an overwhelming contrast between the illustrious reputations of many of the departed and the down-at-heel aura of the burial ground. Walking through the gates upon purchasing my ticket felt a little like what I imagine Miss Havisham’s house must have felt like to Pip in Great Expectations: so much splendour slowly collapsing into a mass of dust and cobwebs and ruin.

The most famous person buried in the eastern half of the cemetery – and the person I was keenest to locate on my own visit – is probably Karl Marx. On a busy day, you can see the small groups of bedraggled communists trooping up Highgate Hill to pay homage to the bearded philosopher. Marx’s tomb, like almost all communist monuments that eschew religion chiefly by making men into gods, is very large and imposing, and there is usually a bouquet of flowers or two placed lovingly at its foot.

Marx is flanked underground by the remains of some of those who were in life inspired by his works. The historian Eric Hobsbawm and the journalist Paul Foot lie to Marx’s left, while directly in front are the former Labour Party leader Michael Foot and the Iranian worker-communist leader Mansoor Hekmat. Elsewhere in the easterly grounds are buried the Victorian writer George Eliot – aka Mary Ann Cross – and Alan Sillitoe, author of the iconic 1950s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

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Back in 1883 when Marx was laid to rest, Highgate Cemetery was run as a private affair. Yet, as Marx himself might have predicted, the cemetery fell into neglect once it was no longer deemed a profitable enterprise by the company that ran it. The London Cemetery Company was declared bankrupt in 1960, and until the Friends of Highgate Cemetery rescued it in 1975 the graveyard fell into a state of disrepair and neglect.

Friends of Highgate seek today to “keep the atmosphere of romantic decay” of the cemetery without allowing nature complete free rein. Such remains the decrepit state of some of the old tombstones – collapsing gradually into small sinkholes under the weight of nearby trees – that it can occasionally feel as if those below ground are endeavouring to pull down those of us situated above it. Elsewhere I saw rows of the most beautiful stone and marble gravestones leaning sombrely to one side, like fields of wheat bending under strong gusts of wind.

Rumour has it that Highgate Cemetery is haunted, including by a hideous old woman who is said to dart dementedly between the tombstones in search of her lost children. I didn’t stumble across any ghostly spectres on my visit to Highgate, and overall the experience of walking around the cemetery was a pleasant one, even on a bitterly cold December afternoon. It inspired in me a feeling of mournful gratitude not unfamiliar to most cemeteries. As one peruses the melancholic and loving inscriptions engraved upon the impressive collection of tombstones – “Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation” – it feels almost as if a thousand souls are metaphorically urging you to live while you still have the chance.

A visit to Highgate Cemetery also brings it sharply home to the visitor that, however illustrious one might have been in life, one invariably ends up buried under several tons of clay and earth and a shabby tombstone – both aristocrat and commoner alike. This is both egalitarian and life-affirming in its way. Old Marx would probably have approved.

 
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