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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Kensal Green Cemetery Tour

“It is upon such stones that men attempt to permanently etch history so they will not exist in a vacuum; it is the final statement after a lifetime of scratching out divisions upon the ground, over ephemeral time itself, merely to give their short journeys meaning, to tell others “I was here – do not forget me, do not let my brief blast dissolve into nothingness.” ~ Rob Bignell

   After a day of rest coming into Paddington we mapped out our week according to the things we wanted to see, knowing we could not possibly do it all. I had recently finished reading Her Fearful Symmetry by author Audrey Neffinegger, which took place at London's Highgate cemetery. It was through this book I learned about cemetery tours and I thought it might be interesting to try it. 

   Boaters who've been into Paddington Basin from Bulls Bridge on the Grand Union know the canal passes right by Kensal Green Cemetery--seventy two acres of tombs and graves clothed in marble, cement, and old, overgrown trees bordered by two conservation areas and the canal. Founded in 1833 it is one of the oldest and largest burial grounds in London, housing the remains of royalty, the well to do gentry, and the respectable--and not so respectable bourgeoisie. Burials  and cremations still take place there today, with the city of the dead divided into those buried in consecrated Church of England ground and everyone else buried in unconsecrated earth.
   Les spent his childhood in Queens Park Estate near Paddington. He used to sneak into this cemetery with friends to gather conkers. (For Americans, conkers are the hard shelled seed from the Horse Chestnut tree, which British children gather, bore holes through and tie string on them to bounce off each other in a game called Conkers.) Happy days; so we opted to take a tour of Kensal Green first, catching the bus from Paddington Basin, passing through Les' childhood haunts on the way.
   This cemetery is dominated by the Anglican chapel at its center, with its colonnades open to the skies. Funeral services are still held here and there is a working catafalque which lowers coffins into the catacombs underneath. (Due to electrical wiring issues we were not able to view the catacombs which are shut to the public until further notice.)

   During World War II German bombs fell on Kensal Green, destroying the chapel roof and breaking off some of the burial monument columns, which have been left for all to view in their broken state.


    “The ground is laid out in gravelled roads of sufficient width for carriages, and planted with forest trees, evergreens, and other shrubs and flowers. The visitor has before him a long vista of slightly-ascending ground, termination of which is concealed by trees and shrubs” (The Penny Magazine, August 1834)

   The tour starts here at the roofless Anglican chapel with its wide carriage way dominated by marble columns.
 I love the far reaching vistas in the city of the dead. The ground is sacrosanct, not the view or the sky.

 Georgina Clements, beloved daughter, born 1834. Her tombs rests amongst the chapel's marble columns. 

She is forever asleep in roofless halls and empty, open rooms where door-less posts mark liminal passageways from the dead to the living...

...and granite epitaphs reach for the skies.     
   Many are the grave stones with draped urns depict the ancient Roman style of mourning their dead. Recognized as an ancient symbol for death (do in part to the cremation rituals practiced in the past), the urn represents the return of the body back to ashes and dust, leading to the soul’s rebirth into the next realm. When shown draped with a cloth, the cloth is representative of death, the final partition separating the living world from that of the dead.

  Some of the monuments resemble giant soup tureens; others appear to be bird cages to capture the fleeting soul. Below, Someone rests eternally under a beautiful Gothic Revival porch.
   Kensal Green abounds with mausoleums, crypts and tombs. What is the difference one may ask? A mausoleum is an above ground structure in which one or more bodies may be laid.
   The Taj Mahal in India, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington D.C. USA are both examples of well known mausoleums. 
   A crypt is a burial spot built to hold a casket, like the "tureen" a few pictures back, which houses the remains of one person. Crypts were commonly located beneath the floors of Christian churches as far back as 600 A.C.E. We walk over the worn tomb stones embedded in the church aisles as we view the wonders of the old churches, chapels, and impressive cathedrals here in Britain.
  A tomb is the container which holds the deceased remains. A casket for those whose bodies are buried, or an urn for those who are cremated. Tombs and crypts are below ground and mausoleums are above ground. While Kensal Green does not have one, there is also something called an ossuary, which is a place built to hold human skeletal remains.
    "To the Memory of Maria Mangin Browne, relict (widow) of Aquila Browne of Lisbon and mother of the Viscountess of D'Alte, who died in London after a short illness on the 21st of December, 1871; deeply lamented by her bereaved son-in-law Count D'Alte who has had her remains deposited in this tomb and will ever mourn for her loss.." Wow! Now that is a a devoted son-in-law! Maria's epitaph makes me wonder what kind of mother-in-law she was to inspire such endless grief and mourning.

   Another lane leads away to a different neighborhood.  Once the first royals--the Earl of Sussex and the Royal Princess Sophia, daughter of King George III--deigned to lay their mortal remains here, this cemetery became a stylish place for the dead to be interred, especially since one may not afford to live as an equal or a close neighbor of royalty  in this life but when dead it is possible to settle in right next door--literally! 


   Above, a knight takes his repose in eternal slumber...
while a nearby angels clasps its hands and weeps silently.

  There are as many different styles of monument and tomb stones as one can imagine in a cemetery as large as Kensal Green. Grave symbolism is not accidental; everything is laden with meaning amongst the houses of the dead.  Down this lane graves are grand with Gothic revival, statuary, garlands, upside down torches, bee hives, Masonic symbols, and angels in various poses.

 The tomb of "William Holland of Clarendon Place, Maida Vale, died 27th September, 1856"  is rife with symbolism. The outward facing angels stand as guardians at each corner of the tomb, intermediaries between humans and God. The wreaths held between the angels stand for victory, honor and eternal life. Torches don't burn upside down--unless they are carved for eternity on the side of a tomb, representing everlasting life. The winged griffons are tomb guardians protecting the remains; the dolphins tail they sport symbolizes their ability to bear the soul of the dead to heaven. To me this is the tomb of a person frightened of what may happen after death, seeking every possible assurance of peace in the afterlife with rest in heaven.
 The symbols on this impedimented grave stone are modern and other than the sunburst pattern representing eternal life, have no specific symbolism pertaining to the grave.  


   This neighborhood is marked by Egyptian stylized obelisks and a Celtic cross. Leaving the older and more gentrified area of graves, one finds some interesting modern stones as well as those marking the resting places of famous artists and writers.  

   This lovely stone depicting its interred citizen resting atop a boat, readied for his journey makes me think of my favorite saying regarding death: Because my ship has sailed from sight it does not mean my journey ends; it only means the river bends.

    Tom Clark, (7 November 1918 – 15 January 1993) was an English screenwriter, creating English plays, drama series and sitcoms.
   I really like the grave stone behind Clark's with the circle carved out of it and the stylized ripple marks below. There is no epitaph on it at all, leaving one to wonder about the inhabitant of this modern grave.  
 To the left is Playwright Harold Pinter's grave stone. Most of the really famous folks have very plain stones which do not call attention to their earthly notoriety. 
   The grave on right is that of Eon Records producer and musician Ian David Loveday, who died in 2009.


For our friend Sandy Field, here lies your favorite author, Anthony Trollope.
     Most Brits will be surprised indeed at this very unadorned tombstone for the Brunel family, which marks the resting place of nine family members: Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, Civil Engineer; his wife Dame Sophie Brunel; their son Isambard Kingdom Brunel, civil engineer; his wife Mary Elizabeth Brunel; their sons Isambard Brunel, DCL (honorary doctorate), Henry Marc Brunel, civil engineer; Georgina Geils Donald, Widow of Isambard Brunel the younger; Lillian Sarah James, niece of Isambard Kingdom Brunel; Nicola, Lady Campbell of Croy, great great granddaughter of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
   Isambard K. Brunel was an English mechanical and civil engineer who built dockyards, the Great Western Railway, a series of steamships including the first propeller-driven transatlantic steamship and numerous important bridges and tunnels. His designs revolutionized public transport and modern engineering.

  Finally the first of my two favorite graves in Kensal Green: "Together in peace, Kevin and Ted, at Rest." Obviously a gay couple who may not have been afforded togetherness in peace during their lifetimes. I was quite touched. It is a sad commentary on society that one might have to wait to die before an allowance of  the same courtesies, liberties, and rights as heterosexual couples experience as a matter of course. 

"Thea Cannonero Altieri, born June 21st, 1910; died October 29, 2000."  She isn't a star, neither famous 'nor infamous, but the deceased certainly had amazing taste! I love the Rolls Royce Silver Lady hood ornament aka The Spirit of Ecstasy leaning over Thea's grave. I'll bet Ms. Altieri was a very interesting woman!


Anonymous said...

We have old burial places here in
Canada as well. Maybe not as ancient as Kensal Green. I once believed many things however now as our physical body's die, we continue as a spirit to return in the future of time...

Stone masons, who constructed so many structures such as houses of worship and now too homes of the mortal remains of the deceased. Where are these specialists now? So much of working with stone regardless of its origin in this day is so mechanised. It allows
one to include on the grave marker
images (and yes now coloured photographs). As with my parents' and my Mum's mother cremation was the preferred route, even for my mother's Mum not common, then. Now quite common, fully 85 percent of the burials in Southern ontario urbanareas are now cremations. I already have my grave marker in place, in a plot beside my parents.
A flat 16" by 30" black granite marker is adorned with a steam locomotive for my love of railways, with a Honda Goldwing motorcycle which I rode for over 30 years and a large yellow smiling face flower with two green petals near the base, as I love gardening and indirectly look forward to my cremains nourishing the soil in which I shall be planted.

I see somebody else likes chestnuts, roasted on a open fire or with holes drilled and stringed.

Chestnet trees are slow growing, massive and rare unless you know where to look. One form of foliage that the person planting same rarely lives to see the tree in its full grown glory. Then there are those who collect chestnuts, conkers
asLes calls them...this shall do so again. Maybe some place near a
canal occupied by a narrow boat, who knows?may xToking

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Bryce,
Yep I agree with you regarding the soul after death. Stone masons were highly prized in centuries past and no wonder--such gifted artisans. Conkers come from Horse chestnut trees, not the sweet chestnuts which folks roast on open fires. Horse chestnuts are inedible to humans but apparently not to horses! Glad to hear spring has sprung for you up north. Take good care of yourself dear friend.

Charmaine said...

So this is what kept stonecutters like Jude the Obscure so very busy back in the day! Great post, Jaq. Very informative and a wonderful array of stonework depicted. I always learn something about my friends here in Washington, too; I didn't know that Sandy Field's favorite author was Trollope. I will have to talk with her about his novels some time.

Keep living the bliss! You give the rest of us hope and courage.


Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Charmaine!
Lovely to hear from you and your timing is impeccable. I was just thinking about you last night after our latest London walk. I found the tombstone of a famous early feminist and author. I'll blog about it soon!

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs