I found out about the open day at Nunhead Cemetery a little bit late in the day, so grabbed my repaired camera, jumped on a train, and 20 minutes later was there. I’ve only been there once before and only had a brief look around today, but it’s a fascinating place to explore and will definitely return soon for one of the last Sunday-of-the-month tours the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery hold. The open day had lots of stalls, some birds of prey, some tours, an overworked ice cream man, a one of the country’s best TV journalists browsing the displays with his children, and, of course, a chance to explore the place.
The cemetery itself was one of London’s big old private cemeteries, but fell into disuse in 1969 after the firm running it decided to abandon it – the plots were nearly all full, there was less money to be made. Trees took root among the graves as the land returned to nature, but it was badly hit by vandalism, with one of its chapels being partly destroyed by fire in the mid-1970s. Southwark Council bought the land for £1, and now it and the FoNC are in charge, with burials still taking place in a small part of the cemetery.
Lottery money enabled the restoration of the chapel remains, together with its crypt in 2000, and we were shown inside this dark, eerie corner. Vandals had got in, attacked the coffins and scattered bones everywhere, and the remains had to be taken away to be put back in order by experts while the crypt was being restored. Not all of the remains could be reinterred here, and nobody knows who is lying in which coffin. But they have all been here for at least a century, as crypt funerals went out of fashion in the early 20th century.
In the early 21st century, though, their peace was disturned by the screeches of middle-class toddlers brought into this dark, damp space by parents who thought this would be the ideal place for their little darlings to run around while everybody else struggled to listen to the council staffer showing us around. “Imogen! Stop it!”
Outside, for peace, I went to a working corner of the cemetery, part of which was given over to Islamic burials – photographs of benign Turkish grandfathers, and the black headstones of two Iraqi gentlemen, one marked “engineer, politician, democrat”. From the Victorian tradesmen around us to the first generation of immigrants in this corner, here was the changing nature of London, encapsulated in its burial grounds.
Just outside, another child clambered over a memorial stone to those retinterred a few years back from a church in Southwark. His well-spoken mother did nothing. Just feet away was the simple grave of an eight-year-old boy, covered in flowers. He died less than two months ago, and his portrait was among the tributes – he’d clearly been born disabled, but here he was, an African lad beaming away in his school uniform. I couldn’t help reflecting that he’d had less opportunities in his short life than the brat running around feet from his grave would have in six months. Neither the brat, nor his mother, even saw his burial place – they went off to annoy other people instead, and climb on more graves.
I will go back. When the children aren’t there, I think.