22 July 2013

Common Dead

I must admit that I only really know South East London because of the bookshops. Through work, I speak to the good chaps at both Herne Hill Books and Dulwich Books every so often and package off boxes of books to those distant climes. However, I am always prepared to venture further afield by various buses to discover a good cemetery. So on a summer's Sunday we packaged ourselves off (by way of hot top decks) to West Norland Cemetery. I would recommend visiting these beautiful burial grounds, designed to mimic paradise and rather successfully to my mind, any time you can make the trip, but we specifically went on Sunday so we could Feast for the Common Dead.

The artist Jane Millar has curated the Curious Trail which is comprised of of 21 works exhibited within the walls of the cemetery, using the architecture, landscape and historic burials as reference points for the artwork. These in themselves are completely fascinating, especially by the likes of Steven Ounanian who unveils a new technology that makes it possible to speak to the dead. He custom made a contraption he calls TELEX-666. This device has electrodes attached to it which plug into the cemetery earth and enable the listener to hear conversations and existential diatribes occurring underground.

Chris McCabe's work entitled Clotted Sun: An Anthology of West Norwood Poetry also particularly interested me. He found details of ten poets buried in the cemetery and researched their poetry. To provide them with another chance of readership he engraved a phrase from one of their poems onto stone and returned it to them. He also had the stones photographed and made into a limited edition book. This is on display at the Columbarium, together with the engraved stone for Sydney Carter who wrote 'The Lord of the Dance' and was cremated at West Norwood.

I could go on and wax lyrical about each and every artist involved. They are very much worth the journey alone. But, as I say, we were there for more ceremonial reasons. For exuberance and remembrance and cake.

Cemetery Map
Sunday's Feast for the Common Dead was a grand picnic held by the Living for those bones and souls who were anonymous, untraceable or simply poor and easily forgotten. The tale begins at Enon Chapel, off Clare Market, in the 1800s. Due to high death rates, lack of space, and the hoards not having money to pay for pomp, circumstance and headstones, twelve thousand bodies were buried, or not even buried, beneath the rickety floorboards. Piled up, filling hundreds of coffins, hacked into bits to make bodies fit, the dead were crammed into a 30' by 60' basement. Not all twelve thousand were present (and rotting) at one time, with corpses being disposed of in rivers and similar when the nooks and crannies between the decomposing dead were simply too small. But these thousands all passed through this underground lair, beneath the chapel which was transformed into a dance hall for a spell, the living dancing over the dead then fainting at the smell.

To cut a long - and fairly gruesome - story short, these representatives of the Common Dead are now at peace in the common burial plot in the cemetery. Dr Ruth Richardson, a medical historian, has steeped herself in this sorrowful tale, researching the lives of the twelve thousand and is passing on the uneasy knowledge. So we joined her and Jane Millar and poets and singers and the general joie de vivre of living breathing people in sunshine to feast for those now resting in the earth. There was a cake the size, shape and spitting image of a coffin, constructed with marble cake and cocoa icing and studded with silver chocolate nails. The artist and grower Elizabeth Myers had created a grave-shaped plot near the common burial area, and grown produce similar to that of a 19th century charcoal burner's cottage garden, and some of this produce became ingredients for the picnic fare. A band, complete with ukulele, played the Jeff Buckley version of 'Hallelujah' and, wonderfully, Pulp's 'Common People'. I don't feel the song sheets were necessary for that particular number, Jarvis being my main man. There was also an eccentric and mostly grey-haired socialist choir belting out a few tunes (and history lessons), and a local community choir who sang the tear-jerking 'Moon Rover' as I leant against a gnarled tree and closed my eyes in the sun. They led us in a procession to the Enon Burial Plot across the cemetery, singing all the way. Flowers and tokens were placed in front of the small squared-off plot, and the dead below were commemorated for the first time. Then something I had never experienced before: a keening. Half a minute of wailing, ululations, drumming, cries of grief, deep sounds of pain, remembrance, joy... I stayed silent but felt at the heart of it.

It all finished with a jolly song. 'The Lord of the Dance'. Of course. Delirious from sun and surreality, we walked through graves and mausoleums, sniffed a few lilies, then sweated back on tarmac.

1 comment:

Chris said...

bonkers, but beautiful