Among Whispering Stones: A Visit to Highgate Cemetery

In the early nineteenth century, London was facing a severe lack of burial sites. The city grew steadily thanks to industrialisation, and so the number of deaths. The necessity to accommodate new tombs led to the creation of private cemeteries. Highgate Cemetery, for instance, was funded in 1839 on the hillside in the urban suburbs. Throughout time, it developed into two wings, hosting a variety of graves. The people who were buried there did not belong to a specific confession, nationality, social group. In fact, Highgate is always surprising in the way deceased individuals “stand” one next the other without any sense of uniformity. Tombs surmounted by large stone crosses lie next to graves of Communist fighters (there is quite a conspicuous group of these next to the monumental tomb of Karl Marx).

Sometimes, walking through the cemetery of my hometown in Italy, I found myself deprecating the tasteless variety of the tombs. The way they were arranged one next to the other in perfect geometrical order, like many little soldiers, did not inspire individuality. In a way, all the inscriptions were different but equal, as the space reserved for each person. On the contrary, the word “order” does not really describe Highgate. The paths are irregular and crowded with graves whose ancient age is proved by immovable layers of ivy and roots. For the most part, stones do not stand straight and bend following the ground’s inclination. This helps conveying some romantic sense of decadence to the viewer, who feels the ravaging of time in a controlled space. The presence of man is silent, hidden underground, and nature provides a peaceful frame capable of softening even the thought of death.

In fact, while the cemetery I visited in Italy looked artificial and anonymous, Highgate manages to preserve a clear identity. This is, I think, because of the diversity of styles that were employed to adorn each grave, and the way the design of the burial site is not standardised, nor aims at secluding each lot into a cold geometrical pattern. To some extent, one has the impression of being in a country village, passing by picturesque houses, each of them unique although similar to the surrounding ones. In all of this, I find astonishing the way the persistent thought of death is incorporated into something so aesthetically pleasing, so distensive and calm.

In Highgate, ideas of eternal rest are not conveyed through symbols of absoluteness or timelessness. Some gravestones are so old that ivy has completely taken over and they are barely visible from distance. Others are broken, and nobody has ever tried to put them back together. Contingency is all around, its smell stemming from the bed of rotting leaves scattered along the paths of soft dirt. It hints at a cycle, the vivid green of leaves and bushes against the grey, hard stones. Death is all around, and so is life despite the ruins and the natural decay. All in all, Highgate expresses hope. This is, that even the definitive end will lead to some new sparkle of vitality.


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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