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The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks in London

A Day with the Dead in London
• Mary Kathleen O’Connor
Eerie it was. I usually do not spend my mornings with the dead, but I had read about the cemetery in the novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger. My three month stay in London was coming to an end, and I had one more place to visit--Highgate Cemetery.


Ascending from the Underground, I made my out of Archway tube station and found myself on a rainy street. I took out my constant companion in London- my umbrella--and, in my sturdy Wellingtons, trudged up the steep Highgate Hill toward the entrance to the cemetery. As I walked up the hill, I noticed that parts of the cemetery were enclosed with a high, concealing brick wall, but others had a short, chain linked fence. From the sidewalk, I viewed towering trees and shrubbery rising above the tall partition, and it seemed as if the moss covered wall protected a forbidden forest and not a cemetery. When I approached the shorter fence, I peeked through the imprisoning chain links. Surprisingly, I did not see any graves but just dense, dark vegetation. Looking more closely, I glimpsed the rounded tops of tombs protruding out of the overgrown shrubbery as they were trapped and yearning for release.

Approaching Highgate’s large, iron gates, I instantly thought about Her Fearful Symmetry.  I had read the novel the previous summer and became enthralled with the peculiarities of Highgate Cemetery.  Her Fearful Symmetry features a ghost whose body is interned in a mausoleum in Highgate Cemetery and haunts her boyfriend and nieces. Her boyfriend works as a graveyard tour guide while writing his doctoral thesis on the cemetery’s history and its notable inhabitants. Throughout the novel, Niffenegger presents Highgate as an architecturally extravagant landmark with a mysterious atmosphere unlike any other attraction in London.

Opening in 1939, Highgate Cemetery was part of the “Magnificent Seven,” modern cemeteries that were built around the perimeter of London. Since they were not located next to any churches, the “Magnificent Seven” were unlike traditional graveyards. During this time, cemeteries within London’s city limits experienced overcrowding, and authorities deemed them a health hazard to the nearby residents. Stephen Geary designed Highgate Cemetery with a gothic theme, and many of the gravestones from the Victorian era follow this motif. Today, Highgate contains about 53,000 graves and has buried 170,000 people. The large cemetery extends into three London boroughs: Camden, Haringey, and Islington.

At 11 am, I passed through the large, black, and rather intimating iron gates and approached a small ticket booth. The worker, an elderly woman with unruly white hair, informed me that since I was not part of a group, and she did not expect many visitors on that rainy Thursday morning, I would be unable to visit the western portion of the cemetery, which featured the Egyptian Avenue and Circle of Lebanon, the most elaborate monuments. Disappointed, I settled for a self-guided tour of the eastern section, handed the worker three pounds, took a brochure, and entered Highgate Cemetery East.

Highgate Angel With my brochure in hand, I decided to follow a trail that circled the whole cemetery. While I walked, I admired the gravestones on each side of the cracked and graying pavement. The ones closest to the path were in a straight line, but farther back, the monuments were scattered, of all different shapes, sizes,  and conditions, among tall trees and overgrown shrubbery, and covered in ivy.  Most of the gravestones were so worn that the writing was illegible, and some were crumbling. The trail seemed to surround a dense wooded area, and I noticed a few wide openings between the gravestones that looked as if they were once manicured paths that had been taken over by nature.

When I reached the back of the cemetery, a dense fog slightly covered the trail, and a canopy of trees blocked out the gray sky. I smelled dampness and the strong fragrance of moss and mold. Standing in the middle of the path, I felt uneasy and alone. I had been in London for over three months and sometimes traveled to all parts of the city by myself during the day and night. Even though I had valued the sense of independence and confidence I possessed in London, at that moment, I wished that I was not experiencing the cemetery’s creepy atmosphere alone.

I decided to cut my visit short and come back the next time I traveled to London--hopefully with my family in tow. As I quickly made my way toward the front of the cemetery, I slipped on the wet pavement, scraping my palms. Regaining my composure, I gradually lifted myself off of the ground. Before I took my first step, I was startled by the sound of rustling leaves. Slowly, I peered over my shoulder and saw a shabby, black cat perched on a dilapidated headstone. With his yellow eyes, he glared in my direction. I no longer felt like I was in London.
Highgate Cat
Karl As I quickly approached the front of the cemetery, I encountered the resting place of Highgate’s most famous resident--Karl Marx. The monument is a tall, rectangular, marble structure with a large bust of Marx on the very top. Seeing Marx peering over the other memorials, it seemed as if he were standing guard over the cemetery. Nearby, I spotted the simple, grave of George Eliot, also known as Mary Ann Evans.  A few days earlier, I had finished Eliot’s book, Middlemarch. I was surprised that the gravestone chiefly displayed George Elliot, which was Evan’s pseudonym, in big letters with her real name underneath in a much smaller font size. Since I was in the presence of "friends,” the remains of people I had studied in school, the uneasy feeling that I had experienced earlier had faded away. I began to feel comfortable in this part of the cemetery until I come across a stone, rectangular, mausoleum- like structure.

At first, I found the memorial intriguing because of the intricate patterns in the cement casing. It was not until I noticed that the flat, heavy, cement lid of the tomb was slightly askew with ivy snaking out of it. In a moment of sheer confidence or insanity, I decided to peer into the opening. As I placed my hands on the cold, rough structure for support, a heavy rain poured through the canopy of trees. I took this as a sign to leave.
As I exited cemetery, the large iron gates creaked, and I had a haunting feeling that they had closed behind me. The sound made me shiver. I knew it was probably just the wind, but I could not help but think that it could have been ghost of one of the 170,000 people buried in Highgate Cemetery. I quickly walked down the street toward the Archway tube station. While I waited for my train, I thought about the ghost in Her Fearful Symmetry and how Niffenegger’s description of the eerie atmosphere in Highgate was very spot-on. Since I was leaving for the United States in the morning, I planned to spend the rest of the day and night relaxing and packing. I knew that the next day I would be surrounded by family and friends who would be eager to have me home. As for my last night alone in London, I hoped that it would be a peaceful one!
© Mary O'Connor    May 2012        

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