Highgate Cemetery, Heterotopias, and Urn Burialle

Michel Foucault’s essay, “Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias” specifically discusses cemeteries. Foucault writes how cemeteries are places where everything is juxtaposed, “since each individual, each family has relatives in the cemetery” and the living and the dead are gathered together, which makes it a heterotopia. Walking around Highgate Cemetery, it’s clear that everybody was dying to get in there (pun mercilessly intended); our tour guide  said that on a busy day, multiple people were being buried and the cemetery was quite noisy and lively. Ironic to call a cemetery lively, isn’t it? But that’s one of the reasons why Highgate is so interesting! It was created for the living just as much for the dead. The changes in what took place in a cemetery and where cemeteries are located speaks volumes to the changes in society. Foucault writes that “until the end of the eighteenth century, the cemetery was placed at the heart of the city, next to the church…bodies lost the last traces of individuality, there were a few individual tombs and then there were the tombs inside the church.” The relationship between the dead and the living was dictated by religious belief: the body of the dead was meaningless, for it no longer housed the soul. Therefore the cemetery functioned almost solely for the living. People could gather, grieve and pray at the grave of the deceased. Society shifted from being mainly concerned with eternal existence through the soul to the mortal, corporeal existence:

Basically it was quite natural that, in a time of real belief in the resurrection of bodies and the immortality of the soul, overriding importance was not accorded to the body’s remains. On the contrary, from the moment when people are no longer sure that they have a soul or that the body will regain life, it is perhaps necessary to give much more attention to the dead body, which is ultimately the only trace of our existence in the world and in language.

This shift feels a bit more contemporary, doesn’t it? I was shocked to hear that the Victorians used to bury families not side by side, but right on top of each other. Death became more individual and focused back to the dead in a sense. Something that struck me about the essay was Foucault’s mention of this shift to when “everyone has a right to her or his own little box for her or his own little personal decay” just as “cemeteries began to be located at the outside border of cities.” Death was not perceived as something more permanent, that one must go through alone, detached from the city. My family rarely visits the cemetery because it’s out of the way, almost inconvenient. The interaction with the dead has changed from visiting cemetery to dealing with the absence in a less physical way.

Sir Robert Browne’s “Hydriotaphia, or Urn Burialle” writes that some people felt differently about getting an individual place to decay. On the other side of the argument, some “conceived it most natural to end in fire, as due unto the master principle in the composition, according to the doctrine of Heraclitus; and therefore heaped up large piles, more actively to waft them toward that element, whereby they also declined a visible degeneration into worms, and left a lasting parcel of their composition.” Cremation makes it so that there is nothing but ashes for the living to mourn over, making the presence of a cemetery less important. This changes the connection between the living and the dead by physically lessening the connection. Cemeteries, such as Highgate, are created as a place to bury the dead, but also as a central gathering place for the living. The columbarium in the cemetery was microscopic compared to the graves present at every turn. Whether or not you or your loved ones are cremated, the dead influence our daily lives.

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