Friday I'm in Love: Life after Death
We hesitate for a few moments at the gates of Highgate Cemetery, when we see the short queue of people and signs for an entrance fee. We hadn't specifically come here, on this unseasonally warm April afternoon - the hottest day of the year so far - but after the craft market we'd come for took all of four minutes to walk around, we found ourselves at a bit of a loose end and ended up here on the edge of Waterlow Park.
"Is it a bit morbid?" I say to my husband, as we umm and ahh a little bit more. "I'm not paying four quid to look at gravestones." It seems you really can't take Yorkshire out of the man. "It's supposed to be really lovely. Maybe we should go in...seeing as we're here?" We pay the money, collect our free map and enter the gates of the cemetery, unsure how to feel about making an afternoon out of other people's deaths. We join the few clusters of visitors meandering slowly through the 37 acre plot, and can't help but notice the myriad of different accents and languages talking together in hushed and somber tones. The tourists are here to visit the grand tombstone of Karl Marx, which is easily identifiable next to some of the more modest graves, but I soon learn that other famous names are buried here too: the parents and wife of Charles Dickens, Michael Faraday, Douglas Adams, Beryl Bainbridge, Jeremy Beadle, Ralph Miliband and, more recently, George Michael. Despite the celebrity 'attraction', people are quiet and respectful as they shuffle along, thinking their own private thoughts and enjoying the opportunity to be still and reflective. Reading through the notes on the map, I learn that the cemetery was first opened as a place for people of any faith (or no faith) to be buried, away from a churchyard, and that it's now looked after by a charity, hence the entrance fee to keep it maintained. It is clear from the crucifixes, stars of David, crescent moons and peace signs adorning the various graves, that anyone is welcome here. We continue further along the well-kept paths that loop and slalom around the cemetery, dipping into and out of the pockets of shade cast by the enormous cedar trees overhead. We are surrounded by wild flowers, and as we walk, pink blossom tumbles over us like confetti. Away from main entrance, around us there is silence, save for the tweeting of nesting birds and the faint rustlings of wildlife in the bushes. As the sun beats down on us from between the trees, there is a sense that even amongst all this death, there is also life. No two gravestones are the same. Some are grand and elaborate - the shape of a piano or a vintage Penguin novel, while others are simple and discreet, adorned with a single rose or tea light candle. Some date back over a hundred years, now shrouded in moss and barely legible, while newer ones are made of such shiny marble you can see your own reflection in the stone. There are those with dates that span two centuries, marking the resting places of people who have seen everything from world wars to mobile phones. Other graves are tiny, no bigger than a shoebox, for those precious souls whose short time on Earth was no longer than a year or a month or a day. Whatever their shape or size or age, to me, they are things of beauty; they are signs that a person was deeply loved. The lettering, etched in stone for eternity, stands as someone's final tribute: Beloved daughter, never forgotten, peace at last, inspirational legacy, devoted father, dearly missed. The vast array of titles - daughter, sister, aunt, mother, wife and friend - reminds me that in our lives we are all so much to so many people, and we stay with them, nestled deep inside their beating hearts, long after we are gone. We will be remembered and cherished and loved for longer than we can ever know. And it's this thought that comforts me as we while away an hour here at the cemetery. I don't find it morbid at all - it is all just incredibly beautiful. It's not the death that you see and feel, it's the love. Acres and acres and acres of love.