Lively times in graveyards of London and Paris

Cemeteries: Quiet, marble-lined avenues of the dead tell much about their lives in two famous capitals.

Destination : Europe

May 02, 1999|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,Sun Staff

It was the best of times when London's elite began to gather around the great cedar tree. It was the worst of times when the Jesuits' old hill outside Paris began to attract the city's poets and lovers.

This is a tale of two cities: two fantastic capitals, two grand communities of glorious achievers and ignoble souls, of glistening marble and green grass.

That their citizens are deceased only adds to the fascination they hold. For these cities, Highgate Cemetery in London and Pere-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris are snug in their reputations as fellowships of fame, and their hushed avenues celebrate life in the most direct and delicious of ways.

More than anything, these cities of the dead are about the lives of the people they hold.

Victorian splendor

Highgate Cemetery was consecrated in 1839, two years after Queen Victoria's accession to the throne and the year before her marriage to Prince Albert. It was an era of reform and industrial growth, and the Gothic revival inevitably influenced the design of the cemetery's ornate buildings and monuments.

Highgate was one of several private cemeteries created in response to poor conditions in public graveyards, and the popularity of what was eventually known as the Western Cemetery prompted the addition of the "new ground," or Eastern Cemetery, in the 1850s.

The easiest way to reach the cemetery, located at the northwest reaches of London, is by underground to the Archway tube station. From there, you can take a bus or walk (it's a 10- or 15-minute stroll). England isn't known for its sunny days, and a little rain adds to the sense of atmosphere when approaching the cemetery.

The day I go with friends, it's pouring buckets. The grass and the trees look impossibly green as we make our way to Swain's Lane, which cuts between the two halves of the cemetery.

The gate on the western side is a forbidding stone structure linking the old Anglican and Dissenters' chapels, the latter of which was used for the dead who didn't belong to the Church of England. We're a few moments late for the tour, which was to begin on the hour, but a game guide agrees to show us through -- after we each pay 3 pounds and another 2 for the privilege of taking photographs.

We're close to being completely drenched, and he tells us what we already know: We must be mad. But in a pleasing and oddly appropriate Boris Karloff voice, this aged volunteer relates snippets of history and gravestone symbolism before veritably sprinting between the raindrops to each item of interest. We aren't permitted to wander on our own.

"Romantic" is a word often associated with Highgate. The paths wind through a profusion of rambling vines, flowers and dense trees, and countless stone angels gaze somberly from rare clearings; this place of the dead is very much alive.

We don't even get to see some of the famous graves -- among them, poet Christina Rossetti and Charles Dickens' parents. (Dickens himself is at rest in Westminster Abbey.)

Yet some of the less obvious names here are on some of the most striking monuments. A wistful stone lion named Nero adorns the grave of George Wombwell, who created a traveling menagerie in the early 1800s that entertained Queen Victoria herself on more than one occasion. And a forever mournful statue of a dog named Lion guards the resting place of his owner, legendary prizefighter Tom Sayers, who died of tuberculosis in 1865 at age 39.

Even more impressive than the stories is the very presence of the place. On the main route, the cavelike Egyptian Avenue is entered through a gate adorned with columns topped by lotus-bud capitals. This somber, shadowed walkway is lined with black, cast-iron doors bearing upside-down torches, which symbolize lives whose flame has gone out.

Most striking is what is called the Lebanon Circle, a circular walkway sunken into the earth and lined with catacombs. Only when one passes through it and ascends the steps to the upper level is the scope of this structure apparent. In the center of the circle, at ground level, is, surprisingly enough, the ground. And at the heart of its emerald lawn sprouts a great cedar tree that grew long before the cemetery was built. Even in the rain, it seems to cast shadows.

Across Swain's Lane and another pound later, we are wandering in the less charming and much more open Eastern Cemetery, whose most famous denizen is undeniably Karl Marx (though novelist George Eliot, a.k.a. Mary Ann Evans, is also buried here).

Marx is hard to miss. His enormous black head -- an imposing sculpture -- tops his memorial, and it seems as if the rest of his overgrown body may be stuffed inside the block of stone. He looks damn uncomfortable. But he is surrounded by his fellow comrades, as well as the dead of many faiths. How can they not be comforted by the memories of fervently lived lives that surround them? At the very least, they do not mind the rain as we do.

Genteel society

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