This is the latest in a series of articles and illustrations from our new special edition publication New Cartography. The magazine offers readers a fresh and alternative take on mapping the urban environment through a collection of articles and illustrations from a wide array of contributors. The complete magazine can be viewed here.
Head down the Mile End road, pass the tube station and its collection of chicken and betting shops and turn right, pass the shoebox estates with their sofas in the sun and their kids on the corner, pass the Union Jack bunting of the local pub, and see the cranes lean into the sky like wonky cathedral spires, framing the glassy glare of Canary Wharf. There is a low throb of helicopter blades from the sky, and everywhere the thrum of traffic, the thick engine chug of the diggers carving and shifting earth; the petrol driven whir of city progress. And there, at the end of Hamlets way, is the cemetery, scruffy and inconspicuous behind the walls of city noise.
The sense of its size isn’t instantly apparent. It seems small, knotted, tangled in the spray of weeds, its headstones choked by pendulous sedge, frizzes of stone parsley and dark, heavy ivy swathed around the trees. But those old stone monuments, the grandiose Victorian seraphim, faces scarred by time and acid rain, whose arms cracked by frost, appeal to a fairytale sense of a hidden realm, or a midnight garden.
At this point, I usually walk east, passing through layers of a deceased social strata. First the millionaires’ row, easily accessible for the horse-drawn hearses of old, a line of monuments and menhirs that communicate the power and wealth of the families that erected them, long before their names are readable. Weeping angels, hands clasped in prayer, cast piteous looks from eight-foot monoliths, lavishly carved in whorls, curlicues and fleurets. Looming above me: Celtic crosses, Grecian urns, half-concealed by stone drapery, the edges and detail of which have been blurred by the elements. And suddenly, it is darker, I look up, and the stretching arms of the London planes, the writhing limbs of the sycamore and ash, cast a dappled shadow at my feet. The wild flowers have taken over, the spindly arms of the small teasel lolls its violet flashes over the nettles and mallows and meadow cranesbills and in an order subordinated by this green disorder, the headstones of the middle classes jut above the undergrowth. They tumble over one another, leaning on trees, uprooted by the wild abandon of the undergrowth. And I hear a plane go overhead, or maybe a siren in the far distance, and as it passes, I realise I haven’t heard another sound. My ears acclimatise, and fill with the gentle rushing of leaf litter on the floor, the sound like pouring rice of the papery poplar leaves along the perimeter, the thick buzz of the damsel flies. The city has disappeared.
And I wander on, craning my neck to the cow parsley and foxgloves that grow two feet over my head, eyes distracted into shadowed grottoes of gorse and holly, muggy sinkholes of stagnant ponds which hum with the birth of tonight’s mosquitoes.I am off the main path now, meandering through a web of woodland spurge, old lady’s bonnet, sorrel and bible-sized gravestones, too small for more than a name and dates. These graves litter the ground, a ransacked library of stone slabs, and mark the resting place not only of those named, but also of countless others, piled in large trenches on top of them. For these are the mass graves of the poor. And I sit, on a stump, submerged in a new world, a mesh of wild flower and bramble and consider the bones beneath me.
The 33 acres of Tower Hamlets Cemetery hold between 350,000 and 380,000 skulls buried between 1841 and 1963. It was built as a government initiative, the last of the Magnificent Seven graveyards, to accommodate the swelling body count of a sprawling London, and an attempt to lessen the contamination of the ground water supplies from the over-spilling urban cemeteries. The government sold these graveyards to various collectives of wealthy company directors, corn merchants, timber merchants, shipbrokers, so that they could sell individual plots to wealthy families. Some collectives, such as Highgate, made this business work and profited from selling plots to rich and famous dignitaries. Tower Hamlets, however, was a poorer borough, and within two years sixty per cent of the intake was for the public graves – within ten years, this proportion rose to eighty per cent. Without the income from the expensive graves they had expected, the investors started losing money on all these public funerals and so neglected the cemetery. Its paths were no longer cleared, and self-seeded ashes and sycamores grew from saplings to trees, dislodging the graves and toppling them. By the Second World War, the cemetery was a forest of trees, ivy and bramble, and though it was still used sporadically to bury the poor, the five bombings it suffered essentially broke its back.
When it was closed in the mid-sixties, it was a dark and gloomy corner of London, haunted with stories of rape and robbery. A seventies initiative proposed to raze the entire place, and turn it into a park of astro-neat turf and lollipop trees. The catacombs and two chapels were cleared in this spirit, and it was left to a coalition of locals to protest further changes.
Thirty years on, the cemetery is now a park, the focus of which is precisely its former abandon. Its wild sprawling aesthetic is due to a careful conservation plan, acted out by 3,000 volunteers from local businesses and community groups. The tresses of tousled ivy have been stripped from selected trunks, canopies have been cut out to give light to saplings newly introduced, and the soil has been mixed with recycled building site sand which allows for greater drainage and sluices the soil of its nutrients. These delicate wild flowers only seem to thrive if their resilience is tested, if the wealth of the soil is limited. This park is an envisioned wild England whose dense diversity could not thrive without close management.
And so, I sit submerged in this manipulated wilderness, surrounded by a city whose advance has enveloped its boundaries. And with this lowering of my eye level comes a change in perspective. The yellow constellations of clustered fennel flowers tower over the council flats at its perimeter, whilst the bulbous heads of poppies rise like hot air balloons over the horizon. With the eyes, the mind shifts its focus. The city is dwarfed by this ecology. The buildings being hauled up by the cranes will one day be pulled down, most likely by man, but ultimately, by the same forces at play in this graveyard: by roots, by rain, and by entropy. The lead letters from the poor graves lie in heaps on the ground, dislodged from their headstones by the elements, an alphabetti spaghetti jumble of signifiers scattered into insignificance.
In this graveyard, the monoliths of the rich no longer herald great power, but its direct opposite. Hierarchy itself is rendered obsolete. In a world of nature, clawed by the creeping tendrils of the ivy, their broken features stand as testaments to flux. But somehow, somewhere in this peaceful hum of vitality, death is stripped of its banal horror.
The sterile air of the wood-panelled crematorium, with its half-hour grieving slots, the green stones, plastic flowers and stately ewe trees of tended graveyards, these are torpid spaces of human construction, where death is lifeless, too detached from our lived experience. These places are constructed outside the city walls as a means of hiding us from our ephemerality. But here, in the Tower Hamlets cemetery, amongst this tangled growth, death seems different: thefoundations of the life that lives upon it. The space that was fenced off by man for his dead has been reconsecrated by nature, with life instead.
The article was commissioned by The New Wolf for New Cartography – an IdeasTap-sponsored magazine.