It's a Guy Thing

Architecture of the Afterlife

The Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal represent the executive end of what mausoleum moolah can buy you. If you aren’t a god on earth or a favorite wife of a Mughal emperor, then I guess your ambitions need to be reassessed. Other than a brick in the wall at Meadow Lane, home of the mighty Notts County, to commemorate my demise I have no lofty exit goals. But what about you? And why are some folk fixated on grander graveside galas?
According to many historians the significant marking of graves became commonplace around 3,000 BC, although unlike today these structures denoted burial chambers containing groups of the deceased rather than a solitary grave. The racy Romans took this art to another level, however the stone tombstones and memorials seen in graveyards across the country only became vogue in the 1650s as church burials boomed. In the nineteenth century plain, factual inscriptions, including name, age and date of death were a familiar sight, until the Victorian era ushered in the appearance of more extravagant erections.
But who are these tributes actually for? The deceased? An attempt to achieve a form of immortality, or at least, lasting fame? Or alternatively, for those who remain? My personal vision of simply vaporizing my remains once I have kicked the bucket and having my ashes spread across the second bend at Eastbourne Speedway (or the nearest operating track), potentially ending up on someone’s anorak after the first heat, may not necessarily chime with you. Death can be a delicate debate and, in an attempt to treat this inquiry with the requisite degree of reverence, I decided to undertake some field research on a chilly January day at one of the most iconic London cemeteries – Highgate

Established in 1839 following an Act of Parliament creating The London Cemetery Company, Highgate was one of seven commissioned graveyards that were necessary to meet a cataclysmic lack of burial space, exacerbated by a meteoric mortality rate. The other sites within this cadre of cemeteries were Kensal Green, West Norwood, Abney Park, Brompton, Nunhead and Tower Hamlets. A generous fifteen acres were consecrated for the interment of those of the Church of England faith whilst a modest two acres were for the remaining other faiths and associated heathens. The first burial, on 26th May 1839, was Elizabeth Jackson aged thirty-six, of Little Windmill Street, Soho.
The cemetery capitalism that created one of the most desirable resting places in London celebrated considerable returns, prompting the extension of the site by an additional twenty acres across the adjoining Swain’s Lane. Simply named the East Cemetery, this formed the focus of my reflective journey into this district of death. Opened in 1856, the business of burial was aided by the construction of a tunnel connecting the new with the old west side, via the Church of England chapel. A hydraulic lift lowered the coffins in a seamless spiritual operation. I didn’t fancy exploring that part!

Mary-Anne Webster, aged sixteen years, was the first to be buried on the east side on 12th June 1860, at one point leading to an average of thirty burials a day. Yet, as this century expired, the yearning for extravagant exits began to fade. The more affluent families remained loyal, securing rights of burial into the 1930s, but this was insufficient to prevent Highgate from withering away, resulting in the commercial death of The London Cemetery Company by bankruptcy in 1960. Significant numbers of graves were discarded as family members either died or moved away, leaving an eery wilderness. In 1975 The Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed with the aim, “… to promote the conservation of the cemetery, its monuments and buildings, flora, and fauna, for the benefit of the public as an environmental amenity.” And thanks to this dedication I was able to stroll through a place that both intrigued me and would, I hoped, finally lay to rest my own questions of the symbolisms and significance of marking death.

As I peered into the cemetery, protected by the imposing iron railings, from the abutting pavement, I was astonished at the seeming tsunami of gravestones. Then before I could catch my breath, I caught site of a grave that literally captured me – in awe of lights, camera, and action! The final resting place of William Friese-Greene, a pioneer of motion pictures. I had never heard of the guy, yet I had been entertained ever since I was a kid with the results of his most brilliant inventions! Maybe I had got this burial thing wrong? Yet the sprawling consequences of this cluttered cemetery were all too clear to see and the sustainability of such a tradition had clear parameters.
On entering the East side my reasoning was again rocked as I clapped eyes upon a crypt that wouldn’t have been out of place in Bel Air, west of downtown Los Angeles. I was impressed! Yet in an instant, I was drawn to the absurdity of extravagance. Then my mind swung swiftly back to the undeniable fact that other people have a different prism in which they view death and if a structure better managed the grief, then who was I to judge? Even though I had only been in situ for a few moments, I quickly realized that this exploration would almost certainly throw up more enigmas than even I had been prepared for. Come on Kirkey – a few more acres to cover before drawing a conclusion!
I stood momentarily to reflect upon the important relationships in my life. This simple yet powerful inscription reminded me of how good it is to be alive, and to enjoy the many beautiful bonds that we have. Maybe we shouldn’t take them for granted.

This moment of reflection concluded when I laughed out loud, quickly correcting myself since I was, after all, in a cemetery, and whatever my values were I still felt it prudent to respect the feelings of others. But come on! This chap looked a miserable fucker! Although I preferred to imagine him as having a profound sense of humor, and on this occasion my laughter was dedicated to him!
Some monuments were evocative of many other human attributes and endeavours and the artistry was as compelling to my eye as it was to my heart. Yet the familiar reference to the reverence of life made me wonder if we should all make more effort to tell those in our lives how much they mean to us before they die? Were these elaborate constructions often a way of allowing those living off the hook?
Then I came across a modest engraving. A pragmatic statement that I interpreted as – ‘I was here, wrote some stuff then I went’ – encouraging me to discover more about this guy. Blimey! He had achieved immortality!
For every proudly upright statement piece there were many others that showed another side of humanity – abandonment. Perhaps not the best mortal quality, but often driven by circumstance. Yet these once sacred monuments graphically represented what happens when living relationships are neglected.

It appeared to me that some inhabitants of Highgate had put significant thought into their passing and perhaps sought to synthesize life and death with a testimony of talent that reached beyond the grave? Artists in particular seemed to grasp this notion with an elegance that made me smile.
Passing the most iconic Highgate interment of Karl Marx, philosopher, economist, historian, sociologist, political theorist, journalist, and socialist revolutionary, thought to be the most visited grave in London, I discovered some hidden gems that amplified the living human spirit – a statement that I recognize is wholly contradictory given where I was.
But my all-time favorite was this incredible declaration!
I left with several competing emotions and had, on this occasion, failed to reach any concrete conclusions. Although I had a fixed idea of how I wanted to be remembered the fact was that this would be out of my hands. My kids may disagree with my express wishes, deciding instead to spend daddy’s legacy on a tomb of Egyptian elevations. Then again, I’m their dad and Adam would probably drape an Arsenal scarf across whatever symbol, if any, remained and Lucy may treat herself to a holiday in the Bahamas toasting my existence with a glass or three of the best champagne!

I still believe that the best place to remember those that have died is in our hearts and minds, for that is a legacy with us permanently, until we join them. But we all deal with death differently, and perhaps some are more deserving than others to be remembered for time immemorial.
As I mused these jumbled thoughts, I made a promise to myself. I would come back one day and visit the West side whilst still alive!

© Ian Kirke 2022 / @ianjkirke