I was standing in Highgate cemetery. My housemate and I had cycled from our flat in Hackney to see Karl Marx’s grave.
I don’t frequent many graveyards, especially not of my own volition, but the £6 price tag seemed a bit steep to me. Is this the going rate? I don’t recall them being that spenny back in Bristol.
Perhaps it was that we were in a smart bit of North London? Maybe this was the number one cemetery on Trip Advisor? Well maybe, but more likely it was that we were in the presence of this famed historical figure, despite the fact he’d been ‘brown-bread’ for over a century.
If the latter is true, it seems a bit harsh that visiting a late loved one should be made more costly, more than a pint more costly, just because an esteemed carcass has been plonked somewhere in the general vicinity.
Either way, we decided to climb over the railings instead.
It must’ve been a pretty bizarre sight to any onlookers. As we did so, it struck me just what confused middle-class rogues we must have appeared – too inquisitive not to see this prized lump of concrete, too skint to do so lawfully.
Once inside, I recalled a school trip to France that took me to Omaha cemetery. There, rows and rows of graves lay in perfect white symmetry as far as the eye could see – each cross or Star of David representing a fallen WWII soldier in a sea of morbid beauty. Were they all religious back then?
The contrast to Highgate couldn’t have been greater. Before me sat tombs in a range of sizes, colours and materials but almost all were united by a grubby finish, chipped edges and overgrown foliage. Some of the trees had uprooted, toppling a number of the headstones, left strewn on the floor, as inanimate as their skeletal counterparts tucked six feet under. I’m not sure I can bring myself to call it a ‘shit cemetery’ but, truth be told, the place was a fucking mess.
Dodging trip hazards in the form of branches and probably flailed human limbs, we reached Big Karl’s grave.
It was easy to spot – at least once the selfie sea had parted – as it was the biggest one in the place, by quite a way.
This seemed a bit odd to me. Would the father of communism want his posthumous existence to be lived out so ostentatiously? Or are some animals more equal than others?
I thought about this all later on and I got quite pissed off. Did this place not have a gardener? Or at least a headstone picker-upper? If not, what the hell was this dollar going towards? It was annoying enough paying council tax to live on a pot-hole-riddled road, but this was a graveyard. Name me one thing in the world requiring less maintenance than a fucking gravestone? Even if it belongs to Big Karl.
But then I couldn’t decide whether my absent £6 was part of a silent, justified dissidence or a classic case of ‘herein lies the problem’.
As we walked around the cemetery towards the exit, I wondered what would be inscribed on my own tombstone. Almost all I saw before me boasted name and date of birth, making them at close inspection uniquely identifiable but, from afar, the complete opposite – common, unoriginal, almost lost.
I had always liked my name and date of birth. Fortunate really – these two facets of my identity as concrete as the tombstone they’ll one day be slapped upon. They seemed to exist as a triumphant duality – separate entities working together to form a greater whole.
How fitting it was that my Dad, whose life was centred on teaching, reading and basically adoring the English language – something he passed on to me – should have a son born on April 23rd – the day on which Shakespeare was supposedly born and died.
As for my name, my mate at Uni once made a passing comment that will stay with me til death do us part.
Scanning my drivers license, he uncovered an amusing juxtaposition between my given name, Danny Stone, sounding as he thought “like an East-End gangster”, and my middle names, Francis Martineau, recalling in his opinion that of “a French renaissance poet”.
In summary, he looked at me and said: “Well I guess you’re somewhere in between.”
That trip to the cemetery, with its fusion of life and death, has also stuck with me as I try to understand my own identity. Curious, outgoing, quasi-cultured, with an inherent taste for rebellion, an underlying desire to be different and, ultimately, an insatiable confusing about the world in which I live.