Death and How to Live It

July 2, 2014 | 14 comments
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I recently spent time in London with the Mormon Theology Seminar. Most of our days were occupied with work, but we had a little time to play tourist. I did all of the things that a first-time visitor to London is supposed to do:  I climbed 528 steps in St. Paul’s to gape at the skyline, had a wicked case of holy envy at Westminster Abbey, and was completely overwhelmed by the British Museum.

But now that I’m home, it’s Highgate Cemetery that I keep mentally revisiting.

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Why? This isn’t an A-list tourist attraction. Who hasn’t already seen a cemetery? (The only reason I went was because it was high on the list of a traveling companion who had shown great patience with all of my previous demands.)

But I was—am–unraveled by it.

It probably helped that the day was cool and humid and the place enormous and virtually deserted.

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(When, fifteen minutes before closing time, an employee walked through the paths ringing a bell, our first thought was “bring out your dead,” but of course, the message was just the opposite: “bring out your living.” There were scant few of us who could heed that call.)

 

 

 

 

At first, I thought I was just charmed by the aesthetics: it felt like a movie set. Not creepy, per se. Definitely not campy. But, somehow, cathartic.

Their little brochure describes it as “romantic decay.” Unlike in every other cemetery I’ve seen, there was no attempt to domesticate death through orderly rows and meticulous manicuring. If Highgate were in the US, some eager beaver eagle scout would have been all over it like white on rice.

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I understand the inclination to tame, believe me. I’m a worrier, a control freak, a perfectionist, anxious. Call it what you will, it keeps me up at night, visualizing the Worst Possible Thing from Every Conceivable Angle as my husband, asleep, breathes faithfully beside me.

 

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Every few months, I consider whether I should be counseled and medicated into a new frame of mind, but then I worry (and, no, the irony isn’t lost on me) about what that would mean, and don’t do it. I press on: avoiding some things, worrying others to death before they even happen.

Narratives are my enemy. (Do you have any idea how many ways there are for the story of a childhood to end badly? For a family’s fable to fall to pieces?) I try to keep my plots in order, frantically cutting every new vine before it can overwhelm any one of the hundreds of stones for which I take responsibility.

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But the mute witness of Highgate Cemetery is that when you stop arranging and pruning, what wins is not chaos and decay or even death itself. The vines, the moss, the trees, the greenery—in short, the living—take over.

 

 

 

 

 

They gently, inevitably overwhelm what we thought were permanent memorials to the ways in which our dearest stories end badly.

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They knock askew our meager attempts to erect everlasting monuments to what has been lost, and what else might yet be lost. They redeem our weak narratives—our attempts to capture a life’s meaning in a few characters of chiseled stone—by burying them under a true vine.

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/with apologies to REM (for the title) and to the gods of consistency (for writing this at four in the morning)

14 Responses to Death and How to Live It

  1. Craig H. on July 2, 2014 at 6:48 am

    What a cool place. And nice thoughts.

  2. theoldadam on July 2, 2014 at 8:23 am

    Death. The final enemy.

    And death was put to death, for us, in our Baptisms (Romans 6).

    What a relief. Now we can get on with the business of living, knowing that the grave will not be able to hold us…because of Jesus.

  3. Hunter on July 2, 2014 at 8:26 am

    Thanks for this. My mind would have heavily gone to thoughts of Ozymandias…yours is a more uplifting take on the place.

  4. James Olsen on July 2, 2014 at 1:47 pm

    This was wonderful. Thank you for sharing that piece of your mind and experience.

  5. Wilfried on July 2, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    Great contribution, Julie. Even greater lesson: the hidden treasures of a city are often much more authentic than what tourism promotes. One needs an insider or an expert to break away from the main attractions.

    Hint for other Europe-bound visitors: In my Belgian home town Antwerp, tourists from over the world (many Americans) flock to the (mostly reconstructed) house of Rubens, and they miss the gripping, totally untouched, 450 years old compound where Tyndale worked on his Bible, where Desiderius Erasmus and Justus Lipsius lived, where Thomas More set the fictional discussions of his Utopia; and where hundreds of humanists had their works typeset and printed (with all the equipment still as it was). BYU TV came here to film part of its “Fires of Faith” on Tyndale. But visitors to Antwerp have seldom heard of the Plantin Moretus museum

    Would love to hear from others about hidden treasures in cities around the world which can be inspiring to Mormons.

  6. Peter LLC on July 2, 2014 at 4:25 pm

    I am fortunate to have something similar in my backyard: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_cemetery_in_Währing

    If Highgate were in the US, some eager beaver eagle scout would have been all over it like white on rice.

    A few years ago, someone from the US embassy in Vienna got wind of the aforementioned cemetery and called in the Marines, literally, to come do something about it. They did, but the underbrush they cleared has long since grown back. It’s only open on rare occasions for tours, and I kind of hope it stays that way.

  7. Miranda Wilcox on July 2, 2014 at 10:26 pm

    Thanks for sharing Julie. Your pictures and meditation remind me of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” published in 1751 (http://www.thomasgray.org/cgi-bin/display.cgi?text=elcc).

  8. Rachel Whipple on July 2, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    I love cemeteries. This one looks fantastic. And as for overlooked sites, when we went to Palmyra a few years ago, there was a fantastic coverlet museum full of handwoven blankets and throws. For a weaver like myself, it was incredible. And while the Church museum across the street was full and surrounded by lines of people, this little textile museum was completely empty.

  9. Michelle on July 3, 2014 at 2:46 am

    Breathtaking post, Julie. Thank you.

    ~a seeking-to-recover worrier

  10. Diana on July 5, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Julie, I love this. We lived in London while my husband was at LSE. At first, we visited Highgate cemetery to see Karl Marx’s grave. We kept returning because the place was so awesome—and very near our flat. So glad you found it.

  11. Clean Cut on July 6, 2014 at 11:38 am

    Wow. Powerful points to ponder.

  12. Walter van Beek on July 6, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    A lovely piece, Julie, especially the notion of a gentle decay of death. I was reminded of Umberto Eco’s last masterpiece, The Cementery of Prague. There, the memory of a suffering people is grotesquely misused for absolutely evil propaganda (anti-semitism). In your hands fading memories become part of the beauty of life.

  13. Alison Moore Smith on July 6, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    This is beautiful. I lived in England for a short time three decades ago, but I don’t recall seeing this. Wish I had. Beautiful thoughts to. And glad to commiserate with a fellow worrier with a soundly sleeping spouse. :)

  14. Ben Peters on July 27, 2014 at 12:38 am

    I was that lucky traveling companion. And, in a rare peep from the back of the bloggernacle, let me rush to echo everything Julie just said. Should you happen by on the right day, Highgate is as breath-taking a comment on our mortal condition as I know. My mind still reels: the overgrowth anonymizes the funerary rush to immortalize the identities of the dead in carved stone. Death levels every status anxiety–and this thought brought to you from the same cemetery that houses the graves of no less than Marx and Herbert Spencer! The (no doubt somewhat managed) gothic greenness that overpowers attempts to associate death with decay, and not new life. The pathways that vanish into the horizon. The silence. The envy we felt for those who remain after closing hour. Listen to Julie: it was quite the visit!

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