For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.
Is it ghoulish to go looking for a fresh grave? On Sunday we wander through Kensal Green cemetery to see if we can find where Harold Pinter was buried on Tuesday, with only ‘in the heart of’ and ‘under a tree’ as clues. There can’t be many new burials at this time of year, and we think we find it. This is what a fresh grave looks like: bare clods of pale earth, the diggings boarded and tarped. No flowers, no marker, just a rectangle of disturbed ground. A headstone won’t appear for months. Not only does it take time to cut, compose and hammer, but the sod is uneasy too. The overturned earth must settle around the bones, and a lasting memorial needs steady soil.
The cold, cold earth is not the only place to go. Like Highgate, Kensal Green has its catacombs of coffins on shelves, beneath the central chapel with its impressive hydraulic catafalque. A triple-coffin is constructed for the occupant of each loculus: a wooden box for the body is fully sealed inside a lead coffin (a plumber usually deals with the metalwork) and then placed inside a larger, decorative coffin. There are thousands (though spaces remain) beneath the chapel where West Londoners also sheltered from German bombs during the war, but you can also get your own mini-mausoleum above the ground.
Kensal Green is the first and oldest of the magnificent seven municipal cemeteries created by act of Parliament in the mid-nineteenth century. There’s a continuity in the melancholy Victorian funerary art from the tumbledown headstones of Tower Hamlets to the proud and wacky Egyptiana of Highgate west, but the character of each cemetery comes from its setting and landscape. Nunhead has hills and views, Abney Park its legendary cruisers’ undergrowth, but Kensal Green is flat and open: from the top gate you can see across most of the plain that rises alongside the Harrow Road. Looking south and across the canal vast gasometers rise and fall in the distance behind the tombstones.
The seven were the solution to London’s early Victorian burial problem, the means by which city graveyards could be closed and sanitary order established. Vaster, more ambitious schemes were proposed, including a giant pyramidal catacomb atop Primrose Hill to house five million souls (the upper levels financed by the sale of the lower in an, er, pyramid-selling scheme), to which the seven were the sane and suburban alternative. But even they have their own lost pasts, their might-have-beens. The original designs for the chapel and entrances were high Victorian gothic, but the owners spurned them for (equally bombastic in their own way) classical columns and gates. Also proposed and never built was a southern water gate where barge-borne funeral processions could arrive along the canal which runs along the south side of the cemetery.
A municipal enterprise, the cemetery itself isn’t consecrated ground, and although the majority of the imagery feels Christian (crosses and angels) there’s also plenty of Victorian classical excess, and a bit more Egyptiana (while Greek and Roman columns serve Mammon and Thanatos with equal vigour, there’s something inherently creepy about animal-headed gods and mystical eyes that suits death rather better than life). There’s also a whole system of Victorian cemetery signifiers. The broken column symbolizes the head of a family lost; a lower broken column one cut off in his prime. There are even novelty headstones. Victorian adventure novelist Mayne Reid’s is equipped with a full set of Indiana Jones style adventure equipment. One grave has been decked out in full Christmas regalia. More warmingly, one flat headstone featureless except for a small stone frog is littered with an empty champagne bottle, candles, and a ‘world’s best mum’ mug.
To die somewhere you must live there first, and Kensal Green also pays a mute kind of tribute to West London’s fluctuating and migrant communities, as well as the great and the good. At the Western end of the cemetery, there’s a Catholic extension, and a small Orthodox section too (names jump out for odd reasons: a couple of Milosevices). There’s a small welter of Italian names, and among them the strange headstone of Italian anarchist Emidio Recchioni which bears his own image, reminds us that London also welcomes political communities in exile. The would-be assassin of Mussolini and associate of Emma Goldman opened a delicatessen in Soho named ‘King Bomba’ (not for anarchist explosives but for Sicilian King Ferdinand II, hammer of the 1848 Italian revolutionaries); he was the father of late Freedom editor Vernon Richards.
Other communities are less visible. Without a keen eye for dates and old-fashioned names, many West Indians buried in Kensal Green go unnoticed. A relief of a wind-blown palm tree on one headstone offers a clue to island origins; elsewhere, the modern fashion of embedding photos of the deceased in the memorial shows many black faces at the eastern end of the main avenue. The great photographer and documenter (gallery) of West London Charlie Phillips documented many black funerals at Kensal Green: somehow the black and white photos seem to emphasise the coldness of the ground in which people born under a warm Caribbean sun were buried. There are sadder stories still. Kelso Cochrane, victim of an early racist murder in Notting Hill is also buried here.
Jamaican connections go back further than the Windrush generation. Mary Seacole is buried in the Catholic section. Marcus Garvey spent the last five years of his life in London and was originally buried here in 1940; in 1964 he was disinterred and reburied in his homeland, in the National Heroes Park in Kingston, Jamaica. And as if to bring round a full Ethiopian circle, here too can be found the final resting place of Ras Andargachew Messai, son-in law of Haile Selassie.
So it goes. Add Harold to the list, and when we come in future years we will pay our respects here too, and tell other tales about nurses and poets, freedom fighters and playwrights. You could fill all London with the stories of those who lie here.