Next Stop Paradise
20 May, 2011
(This article was originally published in The Hill Magazine in July 2006)
Brian Jenner takes a walk around Kensal Green Cemetery
Dying is big business and funeral directors are estate agents for the afterlife. And as with all postcodes, the only qualification for entry to Kensal Green Cemetery is the ability to pay. Victorians wanted to get a good home for their corpses in the same way as well-to-do professionals today like the idea of a smart flat in Notting Hill. Thankfully there are no service charges in Kensal Green, though the company that runs the cemetery would be in a lot better shape if the deceased were still paying.
American satirist Ambrose Bierce called a mausoleum, “the final and funniest folly of the rich”, and with its sooty walls and urban setting, Kensal Green Cemetery has always seemed forbidding and tragic.
Every first and third Sunday of the month there is a walking tour that promises privileged access to the catacombs, so I joined up and prepared for a melancholy afternoon. We started off at the Anglican chapel which is in desperate need of refurbishment. About 40 of us were shown inside but encouraged to view from a distance because of the risk of falling masonry. Pride of place in the middle of the chapel goes to a restored roll-on, roll-off catafalque, the table on which the coffin rests during the funeral service.
The coffins in the catacombs are laid out on shelves. The guide points out the ‘toe-pincher’ coffin and compares it unfavourably with the latest American models. To seal them they are lined with lead. We hear that Lady Diana’s coffin was so heavy it required eight guardsmen to carry it. Caskets have been there so long they have decayed and, in some cases, broken. The stuff that trickles out apparently looks “exactly like Marmite”.
There is disarray rather like a garden shed. Coffins have been draped with rugs in expectation of finding a more permanent berth. Broken plaques have been laid out awaiting repair. There is limited electric light, puddles on the floor an stalactites hanging from the ceilings. I imagine that at night the corpses climb out of their boxes to do a Michael Jackson Thriller routine.
But there is rather more going on here than the burial of the dead. The cemetery first opened in 1832 and was moderately successful for many years but when the Duke of Sussex, third son of George III, chose to be buried there, it acquired celebrity status. Now, getting yourself a decent burial is as bad as getting married – it burns a serious hole in the pocket. A plot in Kensal Green cemetery will cost you £1500. A spacious triple coffin could be as much as £4000. Then you have to pay for extras after that.
We meet some of the characters who showed Hello! style extravagance at their end. Andrew Ducrow (1793-1842), a circus performer, has a huge monument with sphinxes, inverted torches and his own hat and gloves carved into the stone. It cost £3000 in 1842, and was described as ‘ponderous coxcombry’ by The Builder magazine.
Opposite him John St John Long (1798-1834) has a vast Grecian monument. He was a quack doctor who died of consumption, having refused to take his own medicine.
Other graves tell curious stories. Dr James Barry enlisted in the army and became Inspector General of the medical department. Only on his death in 1924 was it discovered that Dr James Barry was in fact a woman.
Give the wealth on show in the neighbourhood, being dead can be as perilous as being alive. Thieves have been caught setting up a generator and using floodlights at night to prize open the coffins in search of jewellery. Vandals have knocked off busts. Pollution from the neighbouring gasworks corroded the marble and broke off the finer details. Some monuments are falling down. Time and decay ravage the pretensions of the dead as well as the living.
The cemetery was inspired by the famous Parisian graveyard Pere-Lachaise. It is a garden cemetery which means it has a lot in common with the dreams of a garden city. The style of memorial can reflect the occupant’s intimations about what death must be like. The Duke of Cambridge’s tomb is like a cosy shed at the bottom of the garden.
There are a few urban myths. Freddy Mercury was cremated there but has no grave. The guide explained that a coach load of Japanese tourists arrived looking for him and were most disappointed to discover he wasn’t there. Iris Murdoch isn’t there either.
On the day I wend they had just given Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s grave a makeover in preparation to mark the 200th anniversary of his death. They bought some bright marble chippings from B&Q as a border, but they were rather too white. Still, they would have to do. I’m sure the great man had his own problems with materials, too.
The guided tour lasts for nearly two hours and ends with a stroll past Ethiopian, Greek and Russian graves on route to Dissenters’ Chapel, which is in excellent condition. There, visitors are treated to tea, coffee and biscuits.
It was comforting to hear from the guide about the failed marriages, family bust ups and the irregular domestic arrangements of the deceased. They made a mess of their lives, too. But at the same time it was worth contemplating what these people achieved. Where would we be without Brunel’s railways? Would we have email today without Charles Babbage? Thackeray, Wilkie Collins and Trollope are still shifting books 150 years on. So the cemetery is not a gloomy place, it is in fact a granary of history highlighting life’s many possibilities.