Last week I went to a cemetery for a day out. No, I haven't completely lost my marbles, I went with some friends and it wasn't any old cemetery, it was Highgate Cemetery in north London.
You might think it a strange day trip for a group of middle-aged south London mums but we had been wanting to go for a while. Why? Because it's a famous place, because it's reportedly beautiful, and peaceful, and in a vaguely exotic location: NORTH London. And because there are famous people buried there, Karl Marx for one. I told the younger two boys in the morning, "I'm going to Highgate Cemetery today," I said.
"Why?" asked Youngest, so I reeled off a few of the reasons above and then added, "and because I like graves, I think graves are important, I wish there was a grave I could go to to pay my respects to my grandparents but because they were cremated and their ashes were scattered, there isn't."
"What!" said Youngest, spluttering his cornflakes out all over the breakfast table, "they were what?"
"What the hell is cremated?"
Have you ever had to explain to a child that we burn the bodies of those we love and throw their ashes around afterwards? It sounded bad. He was horrified.
"And why do you want to visit Karl Marx's grave?" demanded Middle One, who is rather political nowadays.
"Because he's the father of Communism," I said, "an important historical figure, I suppose."
"He's responsible for the slaughter of millions of innocent people," he replied.
"How do you figure that out?"
"Stalin was a Marxist and so was Mao Tse-tung."
"I don't think you can say he's directly responsible," I countered, "I think you'll find that both those people somewhat adulterated his philosophy to suit their own ends."
Blimey. Who would have thought that a simple little trip to a peaceful north London cemetery could spark such tricky breakfast table conversations? And it didn't end there.
At Archway our little group took temporary refuge in a rather grotty cafe in order to recover from the epic trip along the Northern Line and gather strength to assail the rest of the windswept hill up to Highgate. Over not-very-good-coffee (have they not heard of Flat Whites in north London? Savages) we began discussing where we might all end up, when the time comes.
"The thing is," I said, "despite having lived in some lovely places: North Yorkshire, Vancouver, Norwich (don't laugh it's a beautiful city), I've actually lived in south London now for most of my life, so I guess I'll have to be buried there where I have raised a family, and be near my children."
My friends agreed it's a tricky one. One friend said she definitely doesn't want to be buried because what if she wasn't really dead and they buried her alive? (I think Edgar Allan Poe had the same idea.) Better than burned alive, I said. But you'd be dead, she said, so that wouldn't happen. Mmm. Strange logic, but I guess there's isn't much logic to any of it.
Another friend said she supposed it was logical to be buried near her parents house back home in the little churchyard where other family members are already laid to rest. It sounded lovely, and peaceful, but she also thought she'd want to be near her children.
This led to a discussion about the scattering of ashes and how ashes can be taken to multiple locations. Another friend said her husband's mother was "divided up" between his children and their step-mum, which sounds very progressive, and rather depressing.
On the plus side it felt quite liberating to be having such a conversation at all, living in an age which is, to say the least, not very comfortable with death.
Highgate Cemetery is really beautiful. I had no idea it would be so wooded. The gardener in me couldn't help but wonder how they mange to dig all those holes… And the spring flowers are out now, the trees are just coming into leaf, the place was very quiet, as you might expect for a graveyard on a chilly weekday morning. You might even say it was deathly quiet, except for the birds.
For me graveyards, headstones, graves themselves, all have a romantic appeal. It might be directly traceable back to my childhood visits to deserted Yorkshire churchyards, or you could lay the blame squarely at the feet of Emily Bronte (is there a graveyard in Wuthering Heights? There's certainly a ghost, and in my memory Heathcliff visits Cathy's grave).
A beautiful church graveyard we visited in north Yorkshire.
Last Autumn Youngest asked to visit a churchyard in the run up to Halloween, I think he wanted to feel spooked. And so I took him to a lovely old Victorian graveyard near where we live. I'd visited it myself researching a story I was writing in which one of the characters goes to visit his mother's grave for the first time.
Wondering around in the dusk with my youngest son by my side, I was struck again by the names. So many, just like their owners, are now long gone. We don't have Ethels or Wilfreds anymore. The graves I liked best were the old rather grand ones with crooked headstones and winged angels, where multiple family members are listed below...
So that's it, the rich, as with so many things in life, have death all sewn up. I bet Karl Marx would have something to say on the matter, if he wasn't dead, although people with enormous statues to their memory in Highgate Cemetery are possibly not in a position to throw stones.
The answer is to have a family plot then, or better still a mausoleum where you could all end up together. All I need now is a stately home or a castle where I can build one. In Tooting.
Love E x
Homage in Highgate.
P.S. It's my birthday tomorrow. I think that might be where all this death thing is coming from. I'll be back to a more cheerful topic next time.