In the road tracery of my old A-Z Tower Hamlets Cemetery is a green fingerprint. It has its own cross-tracks of dotted lines indicating paths, but they all go under the capital letters of the name. The way those lines disappear under the letters is reminiscent of the way in which direction seems to fade away in there. Not a few times I’ve been striding purposefully down a path, only to find myself at an unexpected edge, or back where I’d been some time before.
It’s wrong to say that all the paths are the same, but they share many features. All around sycamores hood themselves with leaves, and down among the tombstones hawthorns stand. All the iconography of Victorian death recurs – the urn under a cloak, the angels, the tall straight-backed stones. So often these have slipped and tilted to eccentric angles that it’s easy to assign them personality – maybe I’ve been influenced by the graves of Pip’s family in Great Expectations.
But despite the slips in the earth that make the stones nod, or shrug, or seem to be startled awake, uniformity maintains its strange undercurrents. On my most recent visit I passed a row of stones all the same height and lettering. Each inscription started with the phrase “To the Memory of”. The names listed below kept repeating: Henry, Charles, John, Jane, Sarah. It was a slight jolt to pass onto another group, where the words “Beloved” and “Dearest” made their appearance.
This visit was just after the height of summer. Between all the graves brambles jabbed out, with nettles and great hanks of grass. Every so often the thick green was broken by a climb of willowherb, with its pink-purple blooms. Everywhere hung the dried-up skeletons of plants like cow parsley, long gone to seed and desiccated to yellow-white. There was little birdsong, but a family of magpies chacked and squeaked somewhere in the leaves.
I mean to go there more often than I do. It’s a challenge to get there and back from the office in one-hour lunch breaks, only possible with the aid of the DLR. But these Victorian cemeteries have an interest that’s lasted since the first months after I moved to London.
We had a one-bedroom flat in Rye Hill Park, a road that led up from Peckham Rye, looped round some immense tower blocks and dropped back down to the park again. We didn’t know London; we didn’t understand that you could explore it on foot; it was half an hour to the rail station; the buses were few, late, crowded and angry. (This was a long time ago.) But somehow, one day we discovered that Nunhead Cemetery’s boundary wall ran a bare fifty metres from where we slept. We went there on an autumn day just after rain.
A strange discovery. I was used to the municipal cemetery in my home town: ordered, neat and serious minded. Clearly Nunhead retained much of its original seriousness in the words written on each stone. But around the words grew (what I then perceived as) a wonderful green anarchy. In the centre, a chapel of rest had burned out a long time before, and was now crowded with leaves. On discovering, much later, Maurice Riordan’s poem “The January Birds”, set there, I read my own memories onto the text. Where Riordan’s words deal with the unease of birdsong in winter (and by implication the human disturbance of natural rhythms), my reading looked into the great gaps left when the tombstones fracture as plant stems force themselves through.
A couple of years later I encountered the same excitement in Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington. It still astonished me that these large areas should be left so derelict – in the sense of lacking the city’s veneer of structure.
The Victorians who established the great cemeteries would presumably be appalled at their present state. I had vaguely known the story behind the cemeteries’ creation for a long time, but it wasn’t until I read the excellent Necropolis by Catherine Arnold that I learned the full gory details of London’s overflowing churchyards and the corruption (moral) that led whole neighbourhoods to fill with corruption (physical). Arnold’s book claims to offer a complete history of the treatment of the dead in London, but really all it wants to do is talk about these huge cemeteries, how both the rational and the sentimental came together and filled hundreds of acres with memorials – and who could blame her for writing it that way?
But for all the impressiveness of this aspect of the Victorian legacy, and no matter how exciting/pleasant/deliciously melancholy these places are, it seems to me that they did not solve the problem they were meant to deal with.
In the London before the cemeteries the dead had a callously abbreviated “life span”. Bodies were crammed in upon bodies, and RIP lasted a few years, if that. The cemeteries were not only intended to improve conditions for the living hard by the overspilling churchyards, but also to give the dead enough space that they could be remembered in perpetuity.
This is where I might cite Keats (“Here lies one whose name was writ on water”) or Gray (“some mute inglorious Milton”), but it turns out that the dying replicant in Blade Runner captures the theme I’m thinking of: “I've... seen things you people wouldn't believe... All those... moments... will be lost in time.”
As his consciousness expires, so does everything he remembers. I think this was the inevitable flaw in the project of the cemeteries (as they were conceived). For some Victorians, no doubt the idea of heaven overrode any question of memory, but the relentless recollection that seems such a key part of the culture betrays – to my mind – a sense that whatever the afterlife is, it must depend heavily on being remembered. The fading of memory means the fading of living identity. It’s a sentiment already present in Old English poetry:
“So each man should seek, for days after his own,
the living’s praise, the best reputation
he may make before he must go his way.”
(The Seafarer, my translation)
After a couple of generations the memory too dies, with the rememberers, becomes photographs, names, legends, and for the few, books, TV programmes, films, blogs. No matter what the works left might be, the person is gone beyond recovery. This is why the immense London cemeteries are the way they are, with all those untended graves, and one of the reasons why I like them. They are both memory and forgetting, about death and about life in its variety.
The imaginer, walking through, might think of the lives commemorated. The nature lover might enjoy the butterflies and other wildlife. The peoplewatcher will watch the teenagers who sit and cuddle, listening to their music, the dog walkers being hauled along, the children running home from school, the solitary men who sit on benches and read, drink superstrength lager or just stare far pas the gravestones and sycamores.
These men are always there in Tower Hamlets Cemetery. I went in the freezing winter of 2011-2012, when even late in the afternoon ice covered the edges of leaves and lay in great elongations of cold along the length of the path. On some stones it filled the lettering with white. A blackbird on the path stood out like something shining. I strode along to stay warm, hands in pockets, looking side to side between the motionless trees. Here and there sat the men, as if on a railway platform. Better to walk than to sit, I thought, scattering frosty stones from underfoot.