Sunday, March 9, 2008

We See Dead People

When we were living in the Bay Area, we would often go for walks in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery. We’re not particularly ghoulish people (although I did until recently work for a crypt keeper, as some may recall), but the combination of history and scenic beauty in cemeteries can often be interesting - plus they’re always free. Mountain View Cemetery, a gorgeous if slightly crumbling place, was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the most notable landscape architects of the 19th century. Olmsted also designed New York’s Central Park, and an amazing number of college campuses including Cornell, Berkeley, Stanford, and Notre Dame. Wandering around the cemetery, you would often come across recognizable names on the graves: the famous California architects Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck, industrialists Charles Crocker and Warren Bechtel, and a number of people whose names grace the streets of Oakland and Berkeley. For California, these names felt fairly impressive.

A shot of Mountain View Cemetery looking towards San Francisco Bay

In London, most of the incredibly famous people (Newton, Chaucer, Darwin, etc.) are buried at Westminster Abbey or at St. Paul's, although some of the famously treasonous ones are at the Tower of London. Samuel Pepys, who during the 1666 Great Fire of London buried his Parmesan cheese to keep it from melting, is himself buried near to the Tower as well.

The Tower of London: you generally had to do something pretty bad to end up buried here, or at least fail to produce a male heir for Henry VIII.

Recently, in our wanderings around London, we stumbled across Bunhill Fields. A relatively small cemetery, mostly surrounded by office buildings on the north eastern side of The City, we had noticed it once from the top of a double decker bus and decided to stop by when we had a chance. Because this cemetery is in the heart of London, space is a premium, so the graves are crammed in side by side, creating an interesting busy look very unlike the spacious cemeteries so common in the US.

Bunhill Fields

Long used as a burial ground for around 1000 years, Bunhill Fields (the name derived from “bone hill”) was used as a mass burial ground for plague victims. In the space of a small city block, it is estimated that an astonishing 120,000 people are buried at Bunhill Fields, the last in 1854. The burial ground was never consecrated by the Church of England, and as such became used as a burial ground for Nonconformists and other Church of England outsiders, including some Catholics and founders and early important figures of the Quakers, Unitarianism, and Methodism.

The requisite artsy black and white cemetery photo.
Anyone see a melancholy angel statue or an old dilapidated barn nearby?

We knew none of the history when we visited - all we knew was that it looked old and pretty, and was probably a good source for some artsy-fartsy photos. Idly wandering the cemetery, we quickly came face to face with the graves of some literary greats: Daniel Defoe, William Blake, and John Bunyan. For some reason people were leaving one and two pence coins on top of William Blake’s headstone (if anyone knows why, I’d love to know). Also around were the graves of the Wesley family (John Wesley himself is buried just across the street at his chapel), and the Cromwell family (minus Oliver, who was buried at Westminster Abbey, and later exhumed out of spite).

Defoe's grave

Pennies for Blake

On our recent trip to Paris, we visited the Cimetière du Montparnasse. This was a much larger open space, but also packed with graves, many of which were very tall and skinny. Like most of Paris, and particularly because it is in a historically artsy area, many tombs and monuments were very strikingly designed.

Cimetière du Montparnasse

One of the more interesting monuments

Again, we knew nothing about who was buried here, but we came across the graves of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (very well-loved, it seems) and Susan Sontag. The list of famous people buried at Montparnasse is extensive, and includes people like Samuel Beckett, Charles Baudelaire, and Man Ray, not to mention many famous French scientists including the de Jussieu family. I’m slightly sorry that we missed the grave of Serge Gainsbourg.

Sartre and De Beauvoir's grave

I suppose it is a bit strange, given just a few days in Paris, we spent time wandering cemeteries, sitting in the park watching people play pétanque, and going to a children’s marionette show. Perhaps these are slightly odd choices, but whatever, we had a great time.

In case anyone is interested, here are some useful cemetery websites: - really amazing that something like this exists; the name says it all.
London Necropolis - a resource on the cemeteries of London

*Photo of Mountain View Cemetery by 1600 Squirrels on


Hildy said...

cool... one of my favorite things to do when I go to Europe is to visit the old cemeteries.

Andy M. said...

Do they have nice cemeteries in Bingen?