Does Anyone Remember Rebecca?
The warm, full air lay silently on the trees. They bent towards one another in a conspiracy of covering, casting shade over the paths and tombstones. Somewhere, far away, a busy city bustled along through the day. Here, stillness abounded. The stones at my feet crunched. A bird flew from one branch to another. A bee buzzed. The grasses grew green and gracious, interspersed with weeds and brambles, dense foliage choking life out of the earth. Preventing any would-be trespassers from straying off the given path. Clothing the headstones of the dearly departed in a camouflage too clever to penetrate. And guarding the rear flank was the wall.
This was Highgate Cemetery in North London, England. Its a large, impressive burial site, well toured and imposing. The walls go all around, broken only by the two entrances--east and west. Old and new brick is interspersed by iron grating, through which anyone passing can peer in. On arriving at Highgate, I had passed this wall making my way towards the entrance. Looking through the grating, I had seen the mess that I now stood before. It was a jungle of broken headstones and wild weeds. Wildflowers and vines spread themselves everywhere. The stones that were more or less in tact were pressed together like passengers on the tube. They shoved and pushed, each trying to gain more elbowroom. They were also well worn, time and weather having done the damage. The names and dates were all but lost. When I looked in, I saw one stone peering back out at me. One stone with one name:
Our Beloved Rebecca
Though this was my second trip to the cemetery, this was the first time Id noticed these old, forgotten stones pressed against the brick wall. On both trips, I was amazed at how full the place was. Full of the famous and the infamous. There were varied grave markers--marble, stone, and wood. Pillars, obelisks, crosses, and crypts. Fresh flowers on old earth. Names most people know--Karl Marx, George Eliot, Charles Dickens family (though not Charles himself). Its easy to be distracted by them, and not give any attention to the harder-to-locate stones. (Not that I am making excuses for my disregard. One can only see so much.)
On both occasions, I myself was looking for George Eliot and her companion (lover), George Henry Lewes. On both occasions, I found them. On both occasions, I felt rising superstition as I stepped over--and on--several other stones to take a picture. There is something unnerving--especially to a fan of such films as Poltergeist and The Mummy--about stepping on someones grave.
I dont remember all the names that I passed on the guided paths. Only the ones I captured on film. There were too many to bother with. At least, there had been. But on this new visit, as I made my way through, telling myself to remember Eliot and Lewes, I was haunted by the single name I had seen. And I wondered: does anyone remember Rebecca? The stone was very old and I doubted there was anyone alive who was there when she died. But I thought, there must be someone who was told, "This was your grandmother." Then, "This was your great-grandmother." Then, "This was your great-great-grandmother." And so on down the line. But somewhere someone must have forgotten to keep up the tradition. Maybe that was the reason I kept her with me as I walked among the more recently deceased--I was paying the homage she hadnt been given for too long.
And maybe it was this fresh thought, or maybe it was my otherwise contemplative mood, that eventually caused me to pause and take in more names than the ones on my map. I did stop at a few that were meant to catch the eye. On my first visit, I had seen a tiny wooden cross with many balloons and toys for a young boy, who was no more than two. This time there was a marble, engraved stone for an infant. No flowers. Raymond was born and died eleven years ago. Some graves that were clumped together seemed to be only of children. James Goodman was three months old. Behind him, young Benjamin Jones lived only a week. Both showed the signs of years that separated them from me--weeds growing from the earth that covered them.
The paths through the cemetery intertwine, and its useful to buy the map to find your way through. Though the map doesnt bother itself with whos buried on the less traveled paths. Unless, of course, theres a notable personality. And I found that some paths werent on the map, making it easy to lose direction. It can be a disconcerting thing to be lost in a cemetery, alone; even in broad daylight. There were very few visitors this summer day, and I was by myself when I discovered I was on one of those neglected paths. I could see the wall--the one I had passed outside less than an hour before--behind the jumble. This is where the brambles and grasses grew, covering and protecting the stones. For there were many stones. Somewhere among them, I knew, was Rebecca.
I didnt dare wander off this path to find her, though. Maybe thats why anyone who would have cared stopped visiting. Im not sure if I was more afraid of snakes and other creatures or of the people under the earth. I couldnt have taken a step without desecrating someones burial. Through the thick weeds, I could see crosses and stones piled one on top of another. I could see them straining for room to breathe. It reminded me of a beach I had once seen at low tide--for a stretch of at least a mile, all I could see were sand dollars and mounds of seaweed that covered sand dollars. If I had tried to make my way through the stones, I would have crushed so many.
This place was both overwhelming and chilling. And I was taken with this thought, this new thought that has stayed with me in the two years since: so this is what the passage of time can do. It can push you to one side, out of the way, and make room for the fresh and the new. The up and coming. It can choke and bury you in the wake of its passage. It can leave memories in their natural state--formless and void, without a living soul to give them light. It can make what was once so important to remember, now so easy to forget.
There were questions that these thoughts raised, questions without answers: was anyone alive that remembered these dead? Was there anyone alive who knew they had a connection to one of these broken stones? Was there anyone alive who could put up a fuss that a relative was forced to share ground with another? For each stone represented one funeral, one burial plot, one piece of ground to represent one life. There was a reason for picking this particular spot, though that reason would be hard to determine now. For who knew what it was like under that ground? Six feet under. Or more. And still I thought of Rebecca.
The caretaker looks after Karl Marx and his cronies. The main paths on the map are well tended. Everything looks presentable. Until you discover these plots that are no longer recognizable as a site that once had a funeral. I tried to imagine each ceremony, taking place simultaneously, one on top of the other. The scene was a fiasco. So many people, so many mourners. So many "Ashes to ashes" and "dust to dusts". All of them crowding for a moment of time, of recognition, of importance. The dearly departed are laid to rest, they are visited for a time, fresh flowers laid carefully on the ground. How many years passed before someone forgot? Before another stone pushed the first stone away? Before the cemetery became too crowded to walk through without crushing another sand dollar, another life?
I hurried back to the main paths. It was easier to walk where I knew I was expected to
be. Where the grasses were cut and not allowed to overtake the residents. Where the trees
were kept apart and not allowed to plot and plan. Where the names and faces everyone knows
are resting peacefully, unperturbed. Theyre remembered, even if its by those
who dont love them or have any connection to them. Flowers are laid and pictures are
taken. But later, as I wandered through the streets without a map, trying to find my way
to the tube station, I remembered Rebecca. And I wished there were some way to lay flowers
for her grave only. Though heaven knows if she would care they were there.