Resting place of choice

Resting place of choice

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Marx had arrived in London in 1849 as a German émigré and took up permanent residence there. He last lived in Kentish Town, in north London, not far from Highgate Cemetery. Marx had originally been buried in a far corner of the cemetery, some 100 yards from the current site, in the same grave as his wife Jenny, whose death had preceded his by 15 months. That grave was topped by a simple ground-level plaque that recorded their birth and death dates. But as the grave increasingly became a pilgrimage site, with visitors complaining of difficulties in locating it, the British Communist Party in the mid-1950s re-interred the remains of Marx and his extended family in a more prominent setting. The old gravestone was incorporated into the face of the new monument, designed by Lawrence Bradshaw.

In the last few decades, a number of leading international reformers and revolutionaries have chosen to be buried in the vicinity of Marx’s grave.

Just across the path from Marx is the impressive flat gravestone of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an evolutionary biologist and free-market proponent. The two would not have seen eye to eye in their lifetimes, but in death they remain fixed in each other’s sights. This eastern sector arguably contains the wider range of personages, if you add in people like Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Sir Ralph Richardson, the actor.

Burials are ongoing, though the eastern half has the greater selection of available plots. One newcomer is Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian dissident turned critic who was murdered in London by poisoning in 2006. All told, some 170,000 people are now buried here.

Highgate Cemetery remains a kind of masked ball of treasures. Increasingly it’s becoming a wildlife sanctuary, and the place continues to live on in the imagination. In Audrey Niffenegger’s forthcoming supernatural-tinged novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, the cemetery takes on the near-role of a character, as two American identical twins end up inheriting an apartment not far from its gates. As Melville wrote elsewhere, “Something further may follow of this masquerade.”

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