Dear Readers, although my heart will always belong to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery (just up the road from me) I do like an occasional wander around the more-manicured East Finchley Cemetery. Although it is in the Borough of Barnet, it is actually owned by the City of Westminster, which makes life very confusing. I discovered today that the two magnificent Cedars of Lebanon on the front lawn were planted when the cemetery was opened in 1856, and they look very fine indeed.
I was especially taken by the new young cones – female and male cones are borne on the same tree, with the female ones emerging at the beginning of September, followed by the male ones.
The cones take a full 18 months to mature, and then the pine ‘seeds’ drop off gradually over a period of weeks or months, while the cone gradually disintegrates.
What really struck on me on this visit, though, were the sheer number of headstones in the shape of Celtic crosses. Some were extremely rugged and robust, while others were fancier. There are quite a few of these in St Pancras and Islington, especially (as you might expect) on the graves of Irish people, but here there is a positive plethora, which has fairly got me wondering.
There has long been an Irish community in North London, so this would certainly explain some of the crosses, although people of Scottish, Welsh and Cornish heritage often choose them too. The Celtic cross, with a circle representing the sun behind a more typical cross, harks back to the legend that St Patrick brought the pagans of Ireland to Christianity by combining the two symbols. The flared arms signify that this is an Ionic cross, said to symbolise everlasting salvation, love and glory.
The cross below is much more splendid, though it’s tricky to work out exactly what plants are represented. There are at least some roses, I think; it’s said that the more full-blown a rose is, the longer the person had lived (children’s graves often show rosebuds).
And this one is covered in the most delicate filigree. The mid 1800s were the time of the Celtic Revival, and there was a fashion for all things that spoke of misty hilltops and rolling heather-covered hills, so I suspect that many of the grave markers do not necessarily indicate ancestry. This was also the time of the Irish Potato Famine, when many Irish men and women emigrated to the United States and Canada. You can certainly see many Celtic crosses in the graveyards there.
Incidentally, the three steps leading up to many of these crosses are said to represent the steps that Christ took on his way to Calvary to make atonement at the cross. They also denote faith, hope and charity.
These two crosses, bound together with warning tape, are on the verge of falling over – there is a lot of ‘heave’ in the cemetery, probably due to both the prevalence of majestic old trees and also the combination of parching heat and heavy rain that has been the norm for the past few years.
And I couldn’t resist going to visit my favourite headstone in the whole cemetery. I still have no idea who Muriel was, but what a lovely tribute. I am almost convinced that it’s for a child, but I can think of quite a few older ladies for whom it would be a good fit (though if it were mine I’d like a few more beetles and maybe a dragonfly).
And what, I wonder, used to live in this fine mosaic cubbyhole?
I don’t know what it is about cemeteries that appeals so much to crows of all kinds, but their cawing and the machine-gun rattling of magpies is the soundtrack for any visit.
And no visit is complete without a trip to the War Cemetery. This time, I noticed that several of the people commemorated were in the Home Guard.
And just in case we forgot the sheer variety of soldiers during the war, here is Private Wazir Mohammed, who died in July 1945.The Pioneer Corps did everything from constructing bridges and roads to stretcher-bearing. In the early days of WWII it was one of the few units that ‘enemy aliens’ could join, and it’s estimated that one in seven German-speaking Jewish refugees joined the British forces, in spite of the extreme danger of being executed as traitors if they were captured.
And, finally, here is the grave of Dame Fanny Houston, the woman who stood bail for Emmeline Pankhurst when she was imprisoned, who has been called ‘the saviour of the Spitfire’ for her generous donations to various air races which raised the profile of the British aeronautical industry, and who, unfortunately, also admired Hitler and Mussolini as ‘strong men’ and who nearly gave a gift of 200,000 pounds to Oswald Moseley. She was so bereft at the abdication of Edward VIII which she considered the result of Russian intervention, that she had a heart attack and passed away at the age of 79. This is the wonderful thing about cemeteries – there are so many threads, so many stories, so many lives lived. I wonder if any of them need a Writer in Residence?