What happens to cemeteries when they become disused and untended? Life happens. Grass springs unchecked, weeds creep in every available space, moss fills the void inside a stone epitaph. Birds and adders nest. And trees, oak and ash and lime, grow strong and reach to the vast atmosphere above crumbling monuments.
Let me paint a different picture: parish churchyards in 19th century London. The growing city was becoming overrun with bodies that needed burying. Churchyards became dangerously overcrowded. It was said that when you walked by certain churchyards on a hot day, you could smell decay. People were being buried in layers, with very little room for soil on top. Something had to give, and in 1851 Parliament passed a law to prohibit burials in built-up areas of London. Seven magnificent cemeteries (and more) were built outside of the city bounds and the dead found a home once more.
So what how does an overcrowded and smelly London churchyard become a peaceful park, teeming with plants and wildlife, and enormous trees? To find the answer, visit St Pancras Old Church, just a 10-minute walk from King’s Cross Station. It’s an oasis of calm in the midst of a busy part of the city, with lots of green space, shade, and–very important–still quite a few graves to have a gander at. One of the most famous landmarks–and the most famous tree–at St Pancras is the Hardy Tree.
Before he was a famous author, Thomas Hardy worked as an architect in London. In the 1860s, after burials were prohibited by law at St Pancras, Hardy was given the unenviable task of exhuming remains and clearing gravestones at the churchyard to make way for the Midland Railway. Hardy spent a lot of time overseeing the careful and respectful removal of bodies and the dismantling of tombs. He made the decision to place hundreds of gravestones around an ash tree, encircling it in an overlapping pattern. Since then, the tree has done as trees do and grown over many of the graves, engulfing them. So life valiantly overtakes death, or more accurately, nature rightfully overtakes manmade objects.
When I saw the Hardy Tree for the first time, behind its iron fence, I thought about another cemetery a bit closer to home. The Mendip Hospital Cemetery in Wells was established in the 1870s to take in the mortal remains of patients of the Somerset and Bath Lunatic Asylum (later renamed Mendip Hospital). Over 2,900 burials took place over three acres of land, right up until the 1960s. Most of the graves were marked with iron numbers, most of which have been lost.
Today, Mendip Hospital Cemetery is owned by a charity, and is a serenely beautiful spot to visit. Like the St Pancras churchyard, life springs loudly from the past hush of the dead. Reminders of the interred are still scattered around the site: A handful of graves, thoughtful sculptures, and clusters of remaining iron markers, many of which hug the root of a tree.
Not as iconic as the Hardy tree perhaps, but the same message strikes me: Eventually, we all cease to be people and become an etching on stone. A number on an iron marker. A memory. And still nature will grow on, as it always has and will, around us and over us and through us.