Memento, homo, quad cinis es , et in cenerem reverentis
(Remember, o man, that you are ashes, and into ashes you will return)
Today was the first day of my week long adventure exploring the cemetery and mourning aesthetic that flourished during the Victorian period. Having been fortunate enough at the beginning of summer to have been awarded the Susan Cotton Travel Award, I have been afforded the opportunity to explore my passion for this area of Victorian social history, the study of ritual associated with death and burial I believe, offers important insight into the Victorian mindset.
It has been almost fifteen years since my first visit to Highgate cemetery, a haven that John Betjemen declared a ‘Victorian Valhalla’ and to say that I was excited at the prospect of visiting again was a vast understatement. I do now as I did fifteen years ago gravitate towards the western cemetery. The rambling aesthetic of the Western cemetery is a juxtaposition of spectacular monuments and foliage that is just kempt enough to permit good visibility but wild enough to add to the air of Gothic romanticism. A second draw to this side is that my beloved Elizabeth (nee Siddal) and Christina Rossetti are buried here, Lizzie’s painting and poetry has long been an inspiration, her jewel-like watercolours like her poetry both sensitive and naive.
Access to the Western Cemetery is by tour only and after having wandered around the Eastern side of the cemetery the tour offers welcome structure and is packed with useful information regarding not only the history of the cemetery but also supplying useful information regarding the symbolism associated with monument decoration. Our tour guide is full of interesting gems, her enthusiasm is both palpable and infectious, she begins by giving us a small history of the cemetery’s establishment.
Highgate Cemetery forms part of London’s ‘magnificent seven’, a ring of cemeteries including Kensal Green (1833), Norwood (1838), Abney Park, Brompton, Nunhead (all 1840), Tower Hamlets (1841), Highgate itself opened in 1839. The efflorescence of cemeteries throughout London was a response to the increase in the city’s population, churchyards unable to cope with the volume of the city’s dead led to insanitary conditions. Joint stock companies created private cemeteries as a solution to the problem prompted greatly by the public outcry. It would be a number of years before the first municipal cemeteries would be opened.
After basic background history has been covered, our tour guide ploughs emphatically into the symbolism of monuments and their decoration, drawing our attention to relevant examples. A broken Column, symbolises a life cut short, an inverted perpetua represents a life extinguished, urns half draped permit christian souls to escape to heaven and angels, whose role as messenger will intercede between heaven and humanity. Some of the more interesting symbolism is personal to the deceased often denoting occupation such as the grave of coachman James William Selby whoses grave is decorated with whips and horns or social status as evidenced in the grave of Sir. L Otway, whose plot is the largest in the western cemetery. Otway’s large plot is shaped almost boat like and is decorated with inverted canons and canon balls, the size of the plot declares his wealth whilst the canons and balls denote his role as a commander during the peninsular war.
It seems there is a wealth of symbolism to explore beyond the obvious lily and willow and today’s tour has given me a grounding on what I should look out for in my subsequent cemetery visits not only on the burial monuments but also chapels (both Anglican and non-conformist). Landscaping and planting of cemeteries may also provide insight.
More information regarding Highgate cemetery can be found at www.highgate-cemetery.org