In a corner of a burial ground in the remote marshland town of Lydd in Kent is a lonely grave, set a little apart from the others. It is the final resting place of a a soldier’s wife – there’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary in that, as Lydd is home to a military base, but her unusual name has attracted attention over the years and rumours spread that this mysterious woman may in fact have been a member of the Russian imperial family.
If you walk along Redcross Way, a quiet street a stone’s throw away from the hustle and bustle of London Bridge Station and Borough High Street, a strange sight can be found. Hundreds of colourful ribbons, flowers, toys and other trinkets are tied to the railings that surround a small garden, some bright and fresh, others faded with time and exposure to the elements. This is Cross Bones, an old burial ground where thousands of Londoners, mostly the poorest members of society, were laid to rest. In recent years this place has been transformed from a bare piece of land to a colourful community garden dedicated to the memory of London’s outcast dead.
Sheffield, in south Yorkshire, is famous around the world as a centre of steel production – stainless steel was invented in the city in 1912 and many thousands of the city’s residents worked in crucibles and factories producing steel and steel products such as cutlery and weapon components. On a peaceful hillside thousands of Sheffield’s citizens lie at rest, some with graves marked by grand memorials, others unseen beneath the trees and undergrowth. After a period of postwar neglect and uncertainty, the Sheffield General Cemetery is now a celebrated part of the city’s heritage.
Although the 19th Century is the most notorious period for desperate overcrowding in the churchyards and burial grounds of London, the problem of finding enough space to bury the city’s dead was not a new one. As London grew both in population and size during the 18th Century, little room was set aside for cemeteries and the garden we are visiting today is the first example of Anglican churches being forced to locate their burial grounds in far away from the churches themselves. Today, St George’s Gardens in Bloomsbury is very much a part of central London, but when the two burial grounds that were later landscaped into this pleasant park were first opened, they were surrounded by fields.
The word “necropolis” is incredibly evocative – it is somehow a far more atmospheric term for a burial ground than “graveyard” or “cemetery.” The word derives from the Ancient Greek term nekropolis (νεκρόπολις), which translates as “city of the dead.” Rather fittingly, given the origins of the term necropolis, today we are visiting the Greek Necropolis, a small but dramatic section of West Norwood Cemetery in south London – a Greek Orthodox cemetery that contains the highest concentration of listed funerary monuments anywhere in Britain.
Not too far from where musician Jim Morrison is buried in Paris’ Père Lachaise cemetery stands an imposing monument that often gets overlooked by those set on finding Morrison’s memorial. It stands much taller than the graves around it, and on each corner winged skulls leer down at passers-by. It’s a superb monument, full of interesting details and rich imagery, and the man it commemorates lived a fascinating life.
This week Flickering Lamps is taking a break from the hidden, not so well known sites that often grace this site to explore probably the most famous cemetery in the world: Paris’ Père Lachaise. Opened as the world’s first garden cemetery in 1804, Père Lachaise (or to give its original name, cimetière de l’Est – East Cemetery) was the inspiration for many other grand Victorian garden cemeteries, both in Europe and across the Atlantic in the Americas. Situated on the edge of the city, Père Lachaise was opened to provide a dignified burial space for all of Paris’ citizens. Around a million people have been laid to rest there since it opened in 1804, and today, around two million people visit the cemetery every year.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m especially interested in particularly old and unusual graves, and the subject of today’s post definitely falls into that category. On the windswept Lancashire coast, six graves carved into solid rock have survived for over 1,000 years, remarkable survivors at an ancient site where it is thought that pilgrims came to venerate St Patrick in the Anglo-Saxon period. These are the rock-cut tombs of Heysham, some of the finest relics of early Christianity to be found in the north west of England.
A few weeks ago, I went to Brompton Cemetery again. I was with my friend Sharon, a fellow graveyard explorer, and I also had a new camera lens to put through its paces. Since my last visit, a lot of the undergrowth that had swallowed up a good many gravestones had been cleared, and as a result we came across many graves that I’d never seen before. Last time I wrote about Brompton, I felt that I’d not been able to do the place justice in just one article, so it seems like a good time to revisit the cemetery and look at more of its rich heritage. Some of the graves featured this time around are grand and mysterious, others are modest and unassuming; yet all of them have their own fascinating stories to tell.
Cimetière de Montmartre, in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, did not have the most glamorous or auspicious of beginnings. It was originally a gypsum quarry, situated outside of the city walls, and after the quarry was abandoned, a section of it was used as a mass grave during the turbulent years of the 1790s. Yet this rather grim location was over time transformed, and it is now a peaceful haven where thousands of Parisians lie at rest beneath beautiful memorials.