The allure of cemeteries

Last week I wrote about the now much easier way of going back in our family’s history, thanks to the technology available to us. For all that, there is still a fascination with the physical memory of a person’s life which a gravestone represents. In most cases, this is primarily of interest to that person’s family and friends, those who knew the individual personally and for whom there was and remains a direct emotional connection.

In some cases, such as Highgate cemetery in London, there are memorials to people who have had a much larger impact on the world. I have yet to make it to Highgate, mainly because it is not easy to get to, but one of these days we will get to Karl Marx’s grave.

Audrey Niffenegger’s book (she of The Time Traveller’s Wife fame) Her Fearful Symmetry is set around Highgate cemetery and, as you would probably hope, contains a mixture of what we would regard as the real world, and the supernatural which we might associate with cemeteries in fiction. The book took me a couple of times to get into. It happens. Sometimes because I am distracted by something else, sometimes because I am reading too many things concurrently, sometimes because the book just isn’t my thing (not the case here!)

The story is of two American twins who inherit their aunt’s house overlooking the cemetery. The only condition of their inheritance is that they have to live there for a full year. The twins have never lived apart and one theme of the novel is the extent to which they can, or want to, change this and become independent of each other. Both twins form a relationship with the two men who live in the same building, one romantic (with the former lover of the aunt who left them the house) and one more of a caring friendship. And then the supernatural element comes in. (If you want to read the book, skip to the next paragraph – spoiler alert). The girls’ aunt Elspeth is indeed dead, but she is currently an invisible ghost trapped in the apartment. Valentina, the younger and weaker of the twins, begins to sense Elspeth’s presence and later to see her. When Valentina discovers that Elspeth has the ability to scoop out a person’s soul and put it back again, she thinks she has found a way to break free of the stifling relationship with her twin which has defined her life. And that’s as far as I will go with the story – if you want to know what happens and what secrets the family has been hiding for decades, you will have to read the book. I loved it. And the ending is beautiful. As is the ending in The Time Traveller’s Wife (if you have only seen the film of that book, forget the ending, it’s wrong, wrong, wrong!). I tend to cry at the end of her books. And find myself rereading the last few pages now and again.

Karl Marx might be one of the most famous Germans and a celebrity resident of Highgate, but Berlin has its own cemetery where a number of the great and the good from different walks of life are now gathered together. Seeing some of the graves is like walking through the story of Germany and of Berlin. I went armed with a mental list of all the ‘people’ I wanted to see, and managed to find almost all of them despite the lack of any kind of map and the impending darkness of a Berlin evening.

Bertolt Brecht needs little introduction, but I gained a different view of him – and of Anna Seghers, who was previously unknown to me – from reading another novel, Joseph Kanon’s Leaving Berlin.


We also have philosophers…



…one of the men who built Berlin (it took me ages to find this one!) …


…and a pastor who saw that the challenge of Jesus is to act and take a stand, not to stand by and wait for a miracle.


And just so you know, this is what I want for a gravestone. Just not for a while, I hope.


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