Highgate Cemetery, Part II: East Cemetery

Bone up on Part I: West Cemetery

April 30, 2017 — We exited a cemetery, crossed a street, and then entered…a cemetery. That’s how you do it at London’s Highgate Cemetery. Divided into East Cemetery and West Cemetery, the 180-year-old rotyard offers two completely different experiences, both of which are built around overgrown dead people. It’s fabulous.

Lindsey and I had just finished in West Cemetery, which we toured with a group because that’s the only way you can visit West Cemetery. Our ticket also gained us entrance into the relatively newer East Cemetery (opened in 1856), where we could stroll the paths at our leisure, take shortcuts between the stones, and just in general choose our own adventure among the deceased.

Like the West Cemetery, the East Cemetery feels like a slow-motion war between vegetation and tombstones, with the tombstones losing. Some gravestones are just humps of ivy, with no stone visible. Heck, entire sections are that way. Their cemetery maps should come with machetes. I even saw vines seemingly frozen in the act of incrementally lifting stones and moving them. War is hell.

The East Cemetery doesn’t have the architecture of the West—no mausoleums or crypts or Neil Gaiman-inspiring gates—but it does kick the West’s ass when it comes to the graves of the famous.

This is where Karl Marx’s grave stands, the massive carving of his bushy head rising above the column reminding me of the last scene of The Muppet Movie, when the giant, hirsute head of Animal bursts through the top of a building. It’s this monument that drew me to this cemetery last millennium, back when I wasn’t into graveyards. Karl hadn’t changed, didn’t have much to say, but I still think that cat’s crazy.

I’d be tempted to say that Highgate couldn’t improve as a cemetery, but since my last visit it had improved 42%. In 2001, about two years after my original visit, it became the final resting place of Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I don’t know if I’ve ever gone deep about my adoration for Douglas Adams’s work here on OTIS, but I firmly believe there’s never been his equal. His Hitchhiker books paralyze me as both an author and a reader. I mean, how could I ever come even close to his ideas and ability to convey them? And how am I ever going to find it in other books? Nobody has ever hit profundity and absurdity so well. And in space, to boot.

Adams’s grave is simple. Just a plain rectangle slate bearing his name, years, and the designation “Writer.” A small receptacle at its base was full of pens and pencils left by fellow admirers as if they were begging him not to let something so trivial as death stop him from writing. There are certainly too few Douglas Adams books. Balanced atop the edge of the stone were the usual coins and stones people leave as evidence of their visits, but also perched atop the stone was a small dolphin figurine as a beautiful So Long and Thanks for all the Fish reference. And, although no towels were slung over his tombstone, I assume that happens as well. It’s not a usual practice of mine, but I surreptitiously clipped an ivy leaf from the plot to insert into my copy of Hitchhiker’s back home.

Beside Adams’s grave, where, you know, I’d want to be buried, was a triangular chunk of rough rock engraved with large letters. Style-wise, it looked like something that should be on exhibit in the British Museum. The letters gave the name of the interred as Eddie Steele Rosen, who lived a scant 18 years. Looking it up later, I fell down a complete Internet hole, learning the story behind this grave. Eddie was the son of a children’s author named Michael Rosen. The boy died overnight of meningitis, with no warning other than some soft flu-like symptoms. One night the son and father were talking and joking around, and the next morning, his father found him dead. The father would go on to write a book about the incident called Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. Goddamnit.

Anyway, Marx and Adams were the two graves I’d really wanted to see. Other famous interred on this half of Highgate are George Eliot, Michael Farraday, Ralph Richardson (he's the guy who played the Supreme Being in Time Bandits), others. However, as I was wandering the paths and perusing the cemetery map, I discovered another grave for which I would have made a special trip. The grave of Carl Mayer, who co-wrote the script for the 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, one of the most important horror films ever made.

And it was that final discovery that probably pushed this cemetery the extra millimeter it needed to be my favorite so far on the entire planet. Really, its only downsides are the fact that West Cemetery is constrained to tour groups and that the East Cemetery is heavily trafficked as a tourist attraction, and so is often heavily trafficked. But, man, it more than makes up for those. Makes me really want to visit the other six cemeteries that make up London’s Magnificent Seven.

As Lindsey and I strolled along the paths, marveling at the densely thicketed plots, not wanting to leave and fully in the moment, I had a revelation. I’d been to hundreds of cemeteries since my first visit to Highgate, and every single one of them was just me chasing this cemetery.