What’s with the Women Buried in Highgate Cemetery?

One cold morning in London, 2015, I had no classes and decided to take my depleted self to Highgate Cemetery. It would be a cocktail of pleasure and utility, as I wanted to volunteer there and perhaps write about the place. Whether to continue a book on women authors and censorship or try something different was on my mind. And the creative nonfiction I was reading was replete with context and wonderful descriptions, by authors who’d written themselves into their books. Maybe Highgate could prove a rich realm for my own mixture of vignette, memoir and digression—a “sparkling” little book about the Cemetery and the Victorian way of death. Setting my sights on creating something “sparkly,” was misguided—I knew that—but I was a recovering academic, with an itch to write something with a bit of life to it. Poor cemetery to carry the brunt of such expectations.

Off I went. All doubts as to whether I was floating a nowhere idea were carefully squelched so that I could  dwell in possibility. On arrival, I ducked into the admissions kiosk. The volunteer in charge was elderly and abstracted, with sentences that bubbled on and trailed off. He sold me a guidebook for a “fiver” and warned about frightful traffic on the road between the East and West cemeteries. I made a mental note to think about coming back with my tape recorder and interviewing him. While marking time until my tour in the West Cemetery, I walked around the East. Highgate is an “active” cemetery and there were recent graves. I gave poor marks to one adorned with a kitschy figurine of two children, arms entwined—and then noticed it was a child’s grave and felt small. Further along, was a photo of a man too young to be dead, his face exposed and oddly naked as he looked straight into the camera. The flowers on his grave indicated a loss that felt fresh. Karl Marx’s slab-like monument lay down the main path, but I’d seen it before and the newish graves had unsettled me. I made for the old section with its mournful angels, monuments entangled in buckled earth and vein-like roots, and romantic landscapes in which death with all its sadness was in the past—Victorian death weathered into heritage.

I exited, waving at the volunteer who had hunkered down in a knit cap that covered his ears. In crossing the road, I easily evaded death and dismemberment as no car went by at all. Then through tall and ornate metal gates to join a group gathered in the chapel and meet our guide. He was a white-haired, genial story-teller. I’ll call him George as I didn’t catch his name. George was warming us up with the cemetery’s pre-history, when bodies in the City of London were stacked like cordwood, swapped out and disposed of quickly, or dumped in the Thames, when he had to  break off mid-thought as someone at the gate kept calling “yoo-hoo.”  He let her in, fetched someone for her from the other side, and began again. The amateurism was rather charming.

Inside, it was like being in a giant terrarium or a lost world, cold and grey with unnaturally green moss. What would it be like under blue skies? The path wended its way through tombstones held captive by encroaching tree roots and vegetation. Highgate is the Angkor Watt of England. Once privately owned and cared for battalions of gardeners, it went bankrupt, was padlocked, and became unkempt. A Friends Trust was formed and today volunteers tend this great cemetery as a “preserved ruin.” It’s a conservation choice and anyway, the Friends can’t afford manicured vistas. Its pretty quiet now as opposed to the mid-1950s to the 1970s when Hammer Films shot horror films along the paths and vampire hunters scaled the walls and desecrated mausoleums.

I scribbled notes, distracted by inscriptions on monuments and the gender questions they brought up. The tombs belonged to men; most were inscribed with a male name, and then perhaps his profession, contributions, or attributes (he was an architect, a benefactor, talented, etc…). I searched in vain for similar identifiers attached to females. Women were usually tucked into their husband’s grave and simply listed as “wife of.” Monuments for women alone had inscriptions characterizing them as wives, daughters, and sisters. Their circumscribed positions in life were their epitaphs.

I began to listen selectively for anything about gender. George said that respectable Victorian women didn’t go to their loved one’s internment ceremonies—it was too much for their sensibilities.  In the funeral cortege they could be represented by an empty carriage, their card on the seat. George interpreted Victorian symbols for us. A stone pagoda with a chair inside was a symbol of a young person and the cloth resting on it was a shroud. Pagoda, chair and cloth may have symbolized that the family took care of the young female member in life, and then, in death. Victorian symbols and their messages are now refracted through different lens. I read their inscriptions of the natural order as evidence of rampant gender discrimination.

It was men’s graves and the stories behind them that were idiosyncratic. A mastiff crouched on top of the tomb of Thomas Sayers, a scrappy bare-knuckle fighter. Sayers’s last fight, against a gigantic American, was attended by Dickens and declared a draw after 39 brutal rounds. When Sayers died, friends paid for a tomb and 10,000-100,000 people joined in the cortege: Sayers in the front carriage, his faithful dog in the second, and his wife in the third. I wasn’t sure what kind of a statement that was.

George would stop at particular tombs to make this or that point. Like the Means family obelisk which had recently been spruced up. Its freshened facade reminds that the original cemetery would have been a sea of white marble. No trees. He showed us a jumble of stone where a World War II bomb had hit. I react like a hunting dog with prey in sight to any mention of bomb damage—it’s cultural destruction and silencing. There was a lot of silencing in this cemetery as well as jockeying for status. But then cemeteries often reveal a lot about the societies that create them.

There are around 55,000 graves in the cemetery, and perhaps 133,000 people buried in them. George is in the process of creating a database of tomb occupants which might not be completed in his life time. I asked him if there were any plans to photograph the monuments and collect inscriptions as some were in danger of being lost. “No,” he said. At the end of the tour, I suggested that Highgate’s inscriptions seemed to be within the scope of UNESCO’s Endangered Archives programs. I didn’t have time to say that it might be a way to get resources to expand and complete his database. Having pictures of the monuments and their inscriptions would allow them to be “read” by genealogists, historians, sociologists, writers, and women’s studies researchers. It was all so clear to me. However, I was shepherded firmly out the gate and left to wonder if George had caught the idea.

Half frozen, I left the cemetery and sped through the adjoining park.  I couldn’t resist snapping pictures of a gorgeous pond, with its reflections of the drooping branches.  Ducks set off ripples and the banks hosted ultra-white sea birds and fat and complacent multi-colored pigeons—in their own way as extraordinary as the cemetery. The double-decker bus I took through some pretty dreary areas was enlivened by school girls in green pleated skirts with cell phones who got on together, and then were spewed forth one by one. A charmer (with hair gathered into a huge bushy bunch) jumped off the bus crying “au revoir, Amigos.” Bus 4 dropped me at the edge of City University where I had two cups of peppermint tea and went to my creative nonfiction class, where my amigos were.

The trip served as an epiphany. I returned to my research on women writers with a deep sense that they were neutralized by Victorian gender constraints while alive and censored into womanly conformity after death (witness the inscriptions). Cemeteries would yield compelling insights into silencing processes. The end result was Nevertheless, They Wrote: Women, Writing and Suppression—a manuscript in search of an agent and editor. As well, I became a volunteer at the cemetery and my domain was the East Side kiosk, every Friday afternoon for a year until my student visa expired. It turned out that at least three of my women authors had deep connections to the cemetery. I was even allowed into Radclyffe Hall’s mausoleum.

Highgate is the loveliest, eeriest, richest place I know and if I were younger, I would do a degree in Victorian studies, and use Highgate as a basis for a study on inscriptions. I would record and preserve fading inscriptions and research female invisibility as etched in stone.