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