Featured Image: West Highgate Cemetery, taken by EM Castellan
The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think one should be buried in so sweet a place. – Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Some find cemeteries to be ghoulish or depressing. I’m not one of those people – I find cemeteries to be peaceful, contemplative, and even relaxing. Many Victorians also held this view, and some even believed cemeteries could provide a unique spiritual experience, akin to attending church… or cult.
The “Human Jam” Who Dwell Beneath
We late-lamented, resting here
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know now which I am!’
-Thomas Hardy, from “The Levelled Churchyard”
Perhaps some of the spiritual energy thought to perfume the cemetery is due to who lies beneath the ground. Poets have a longstanding tradition of meditating on death, but after their own deaths, they often achieve immortality. Robert Graves, a World War I poet, believed this was because “an aroma of holiness still clings to the title ‘poet’…. it is only when death releases the true poet from the embarrassing condition of being at once immortal and alive in the flesh that people are prepared to honor him” (Stanford).
Poets also have the longstanding tradition of being associated with the ancient pagan belief that the poet was not just a writer, but someone “with special spiritual powers,” powers that Robert Graves would argue seem to grow even more powerful post mortem. Today, cemeteries housing the corpses of famous poets have achieved immortality in their own right, with tourists from all over the world flocking to visit the graves of Keats, Blake, and Yeats.
The Importance of Cemetery Design
There is also much to be said about the design and ambiance of a cemetery that lends itself to creating a powerful spiritual experience. Though many famous cemeteries are now steeped in superstition and history, they, too, were once new cemeteries that hoped to offer more than just a pleasant experience for the living, the only group who could truly appreciate them.
John Claudius Loudon, author of On the Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries, essentially a manifesto on cemetery design and cultivation, was considered to be the “high priest of the Victorian cemeteries’ cult” (Stanford). Loudon was a purveyor of the new cemetery, a place that embodied elements of an educational, botanical, and spiritual refuge. Essentially, he was a highbrow cemetery snob, and his opinions on proper cemetery design were absorbed and adhered to like scripture.
Loudon was also the editor of The Gardener’s Magazine, which he helped to found in 1825. It was here that he first wrote about his opinions on cemetery design, before the publication of his book that captured all of his thoughts on the subject in 1843. He believed that a perfect cemetery was a balance “between straight elegant carriageways and serpentine paths, gardens, and the paraphernalia of death” coupled with the perfect botanical adornment. For example, Loudon favorited Cypresses because they fit his criteria of cemetery trees that were naturally dark in color and had a sublime quality to them; flowering trees were frowned upon because of the messes their shed petals left behind. These preferences were in accordance with Loudon’s belief that all plants on cemetery grounds must adhere to a “distinct funerary aesthetic.” All of these obsessive particularities served to create an experience that Loudon hoped would serve as “a history lesson, a holiday, and a religious experience rolled into one.”
Together, the souls who dwell beneath the ground and the architecture of the cemetery itself serve to create an experience that allows for a profound meditation upon mortality; it is a moment that freezes the modernity of our world, a world that stops for nothing.
Stanford, Peter. How To Read A Graveyard. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. Print.