29 July 2010

The Victorian celebration of death


Life in Victorian London was drastically shorter than the near-century many in developed countries now enjoy.  With this in mind, and displaying a fondness for theatricality befitting the age, the Victorians put a great deal of effort into their funerals:

Death is ever-present in Victorian times: three out of every 20 babies die before their first birthday, and life expectancy is about 40 years. This is the golden age of the funeral, which can be lavish in the extreme. Coffins are intricately carved and decorated with gilding. Hearses and their horses are adorned with black ostrich plumes. Professional mourners (called 'mutes') walk in the funeral procession, looking melancholy. Lavish refreshments are served after interment. Funerals for children feature white gloves on the mourners, white ostrich plumes on the horses and white coffins.

Highgate Cemetery in north London is one of the best examples of a Victorian cemetery, and it is probably the most famous.  The western cemetery opened for business in 1839, it is still accepting burials today, although most of its tenants arrived in the 19th century.  (The eastern half of the cemetery, which was not part of my tour this time around, was opened in 1856, and boasts Karl Marx’s grave).  Now some parts of Highgate are a semi-wilderness that is slowly being reclaimed from overgrown foliage, and the site is peppered with splendid tall trees and gnarled vines.  A tour of this atmospheric and beautiful cemetery is a must for anyone with an interest in the history of Victorian London and its inhabitants.

A few of the august residents of Highgate stood out during the hour-long meander through the cemetery’s winding trails:

SONY DSC That of menagerist George Wombwell, a prototypical zookeeper who wowed middle-19th century England with his entrepreneurial spirit, is topped with a characterful statue of his favourite lion Nero, snoozing with his mighty head resting on his paws.  Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie toured the country from 1810 and fast developed into a major business empire, boosted in no small terms by Wombwell’s keen sense of showbiz salesmanship:

Wombwell frequented the St Bartholomew's Fair in London and even developed a rivalry with another exhibitor, Atkins. Once when he arrived at the fair, his elephant died and Atkins put up a sign "The Only Live Elephant in the Fair". Wombwell simply put up a scroll with the words "The Only Dead Elephant in the Fair" and explained that seeing a dead elephant was an even a rarer thing than a live one. The public, realising that they could see a living elephant at any time, flocked to see and generally poke the dead one! Throughout the fair Atkins' menagerie was largely deserted, much to his disgust.  (Source: Wikipedia)

Stitched Panorama One of the most imposing monuments in the cemetery is the mausoleum of Julius Beer, which was initially built to honour the memory of his daughter who died at a young age.  The ostentatious opulence of the tomb and its decorations coupled with the sheer height of the spire atop it both serve to remind Victorian society that Beer was an exceedingly wealthy individual.  This was Beer cocking a snook at high society, which shunned him and his family – a German Jew, Beer had made his fortune as a newspaper proprietor and financier, but ‘well-bred’ Londoners never welcomed the Beers into their social circles. 

SONY DSC At the other end of the social spectrum is the tomb of the pugilist Thomas Sayers, a famous bare-knuckle boxer who captured the public’s imagination in the 1850s with his brave fighting style and celebrated stamina.  After his final bout in 1860 against an American challenger, which descended into riotous conditions as the fight dragged on for 37 rounds and 140 minutes, Sayers’ fans raised over £3000 (perhaps £270,000 in today’s money) to persuade him to never fight again.  Sayers died five short years later at the age of 39, and the ensuing public outpouring of sympathy saw a massive ten thousand mourners attend the burial at Highgate.  His tomb is guarded by a statue of his beloved bull mastiff, ‘Lion’, which occupied a key position in the funeral procession as the chief mourner.   

There were two other graves that I didn’t get a photo of.  Only a few years old, the grave of the assassinated Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko is still adorned with a large photo of the man before he was poisoned.  His wife, who still campaigns on his behalf, asks that visitors to the cemetery refrain from photographing the grave. 

Lastly, I’m not sure why I missed getting a picture of the following grave.  But I loved the story of Dante Gabriel Rossetti the poet, who in 1862 had a book of his sonnets buried in Highgate as a love token for his wife and muse, the famous artists' model Elizabeth Siddal, who featured in many of the finest pre-Raphaelite paintings including the best known, Ophelia.  Seven years later Rossetti realised the book contained the only copies of his best work so he petitioned the Home Secretary to exhume the Siddal grave and get the book back!  The friend who he sent to retrieve the book handed it over with the report that it was in good condition aside from being somewhat damp (it had rested under her head) and that the corpse was in very good condition with the only noticeable difference being that the hair and nails had grown considerably since burial.

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