Tuesday, 5 July 2022

"Firmly in the second division"; Wimbledon Cemetery, Gap Road SW19


Gap Road Cemetery, say Meller and Parsons haughtily, “must be placed firmly in the second division.” The use of the word ‘firmly’ is interesting, as though poor Wimbledon might be guilty of getting ideas above its station and needs to be sternly reminded that it is not a cemetery worth anyone going out of their way to see. It was originally opened as a 20-acre site in 1877; “Two Gothic Chapels, each with a small broach spare, were by Sir Banister Fletcher and the ground ‘laid out’ for £6,000, but it is not a very distinguished complex and rather spoiled by a glass roof mortuary placed squarely in the middle,” they say in ‘London Cemeteries’. They go on to complain that the best memorial, the Cooke mausoleum has attracted vandalism and is now “in a sorry state” and that the prime grave plots near the paths “have all been cornered by local dignitaries, mayors and local councillors of the Borough”. I was there a couple of years ago on a bright, sunny October day with the temperature in the low 20’s – it didn’t seem so bad to me. There are a lot of angels and unusually, an Ankh memorial for local doctor James Milward who died in 1917. There are few persons of note buried here though somewhere in its extended 28 acres is the grave of poet Eliza Cook which I have been promising myself to try and find. 

Complaints about the cemetery apparently started early. A disgruntled ratepayer from Wimbledon wrote to the Surrey Comet on 10 April 1877, complaining bitterly about cemetery mud;

Sir,—l was glad to find that the suggestion in your columns that planks should be laid from the pathways to the open graves in this cemetery had been attended to by the authorities. I would submit, however, that on very damp days (it is doubtful if we have had many days of any other kind since the opening of the cemetery) that there should be a little more liberal supply of boards at the grave. The boards on the day I saw them held about 10 people. If one of the mourners had stepped off the mound, he or would have been ankle deep in slough. Something has certainly been done in the right direction but a little more is needed for the comfort of those whose sorrow, not pleasure, induces their attendance. The Burial Board, I feel confident, have but one desire, and that is to minister to the convenience and comfort of the parishioners. I hope therefore when next I stand by the side of a grave it will not be in the sticky mud, but, if a damp day, upon a parish board, the expense of which the vestry assuredly will never grudge. I am, &c. RATEPAYER Wimbledon April 10. P.S. —How will gravestones when erected retain their perpendicular in the present state of the soil?

The mire in the cemetery was not the only bone of contention amongst the ratepayers of Wimbledon. The annual Easter vestry meeting held on the evening of the 3rd April 1877 in the church hall had been unusually well attended and noisy almost to the point of rowdiness. The meeting started with the vicar, the Rev. Haygarth, taking the chair and having one of his churchwardens, Mr Stride, explain that the annual accounts were not quite ready to be audited and suggesting that another meeting be held in 3 weeks’ time to examine them. The vicar then announced the appointment of a new churchwarden. So far, so good. But when Mr Stride moved, and Colonel Cole seconded that Mr Arthur Harmer be appointed sexton, all hell broke loose. Mr Scott, backed by Mr Paxton, said that as the churchyard was about to be closed there was no necessity for a sexton. Someone suggested a compromise, make the cemetery superintended the Sexton. This proposal was howled down as being completely inappropriate. Colonel Cole, having proposed Mr Harmer for Sexton then began to argue that the post was purely for the churchyard and that the burial board, responsible for the cemetery, could not interfere in the freehold of the churchyard which belonged to the vicar. “Would you allow the burial board to dig in your garden?” he asked “It is your freehold for the time being – at least I hope it is!”  The proposal to appoint a sexton was voted down by 40 votes to 33. The unstated issue, as was often the case in these sorts of disputes, was the church’s right to charge a burial fee in the cemetery. Despite the vote of the Vestry the Vicar went on to appoint Mr Harmer as Sexton and also authorised him to collect burial fees. Two years after the vestry meeting the burial board felt obliged to put a notice in the Surry Comet (19 April 1879) warning parishioners not to pay fees to the parish Sexton:

WIMBLEDON LOCAL BOARD. WIMBLEDON CEMETERY. SEXTONS FEES. IT having come to the knowledge of the Wimbledon Burial Board, that the Pariah Clerk (Mr. Arthur Harmer), has demanded, and in many cases, received Fees as Sexton, when Burials have taken place in this Cemetery. Notice is hereby given, that the Board has never authorised Mr. Harmer to receive such Fees, nor has or any other person, been appointed Sexton. It is therefore particularly requested that, if demanded, no such Fees be paid. By order W. H. WHITFIELD, Clerk. Wimbledon Burial Board Office 2nd April 1879

How the matter was finally resolved I don’t know but financial conflicts over fees between the parish and the management of the new cemeteries was not uncommon in 19th century London.  

The Glasgow Herald of 12 November 1900 gave more prominence to the Queen’s representative at a funeral in the cemetery than it did to the actual deceased, a table decker at the palace, a flunky whose job for almost 30 years was to set the table for Royal meals;

Mr Brook Taylor, one of the Queen's Gentlemen Ushers. represented Her Majesty at the funeral of the late Mr Kirby, which took place at Wimbledon Cemetery yesterday. Mr Kirby was in the Queen's service 56 years, and for the last 29 years was Her Majesty's principal table decker.

In the days when being alive at 100 was a very rare event indeed, the newspapers always loved a centenarian. Mrs Coke, the Leinster Reporter noted on 9 April 1904, came from a family of long-lived individuals;

Mrs Coke, of Hartfield-road, Wimbledon, died last week at the age of 101, and was buried in Wimbledon Cemetery on Saturday. She had lived in the reigns of five monarchs.  Up to April last she was able to do light household work and to sew, knit, and read Mr Bible. Her father died at the age of 101, and her mother was within three months of that age at her death. Mrs Coke leaves a son who is seventy-two, and a daughter-in-law who is seventy-four.

A couple of years later the Cheltenham Chronicle (14 April 1916) were reported the death of ‘the oldest farmers widow in England’;

DEATH OF A CENTENARIAN. The funeral of Mrs. Cordeaux, who was the oldest farmer's widow in England, took place at Wimbledon Cemetery on Tuesday. Mrs. Cordeaux died on the 4th inst. at her residence, Trevose, Worcester Park, and she was 103 years old. Deceased was possessed of wonderful faculties up till the last, and took great interest in Parliamentary matters, the doings of the Royal Family, and also local politics. Her memory was exceptionally keen, and she vividly remembered and related incidents of the Napoleonic wars and reminiscences of the time when there were taxes upon windows and saddle horses. The deceased and her husband, James Cordeaux, who was a well-known farmer, and died at Raynes Park in 1890, spent most of their lives at Lutterworth, Warwickshire, where they celebrated their diamond jubilee.

And finally, from the Sporting Gazette of Saturday 21 January 1882, the premature demise of an apparently well known coach guard;

COACHING NOTES. On Saturday morning last, Robert Rear. who has for many years been the well-known guard of the Windsor Summer and Ramsgate and Canterbury Autumn coaches, dropped down dead as he was going Into the yard by the side of his coach, at 7, Edgware-road; it may truly be said that he died In harness. A subscription has been started to defray the expenses of his funeral, and to give a helping hand to his widow and six little children, the eldest of whom is but thirteen years, and the youngest fourteen months. All coaching men knew him, and many thousands of passengers who have heard his stories and the sound of his horn will no doubt come forward to assist the widow and orphans in their dire distress. Major Dixon has opened a list at the Badminton Club and at the White Horse Cellars, where Mr Banks will receive any subscriptions, and we need only say that we shall gladly do the same, and all subscriptions sent to " The COUNTY GENTLEMAN" will be acknowledged in these columns. The funeral takes place to-day at Wimbledon Cemetery, at 12.30, when the Oatland Park Coach (Mr. Bonverie's) will not run its regular route, but wiII take down any coachmen and guards who wish to attend to pay a last tribute to one who was always civil and obliging to his passengers, and ready to give a helping hand to everyone.

Thursday, 30 June 2022

Roving Eyes & Sticky Fingers; Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), Chelsea Old Church

There was nothing too small, too big, too fast or too odd for Hans Sloane not to want to put it under glass and attach a label. Setting out to collect the world in the late 17th century, Sloane packed his cabinets with gnats’ blood, Inuit sun visors, a stick to put down your throat to make yourself sick, a cyclops pig, a silver penis protector and a bit of coral that looked just like someone’s hand. Out of this jumble of natural and manmade scraps he fashioned a legacy for the nation. In 1759 the British Museum was opened for the purpose of letting plebeians, patricians and everyone in between gawp at the world as refracted through one man’s roving eye and sticky fingers.

Kathryn Hughes - The Guardian

Sir Hans Sloane has become something of an embarrassment to the beneficiaries of his many legacies. Dr Hartwig Fischer who, since 2016, had been the first foreign director of the British Museum, was left in a difficult position after the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. On 05 June the Museum website carried a special message from him;

The British Museum stands in solidarity with the British Black community, with the African American community, with the Black community throughout the world. We are aligned with the spirit and soul of Black Lives Matter everywhere.

Inevitably the question was asked – “does this mean the museum is going to return the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria?” (Or the Elgin Marbles to Greece, the Maqdala collection to Ethiopia, the Moai to Rapa Nui, the Rosetta stone to Egypt etc). The answer to that question was, of course, no. What the Museum would do would be to put “inclusion and diversity… at the heart of our values” by working “to diversify our own staff” and broadening “the diversity of voices present in the interpretation of objects in the collection” and, last but not least, by continuing “to research, acknowledge and address the colonial history of Britain and its impact on our institution…” And of course, that means having to acknowledge that your founding collection was donated by a slave owner…

In August 2020 a dusty bust of Sir Hans, to which no one previously had paid much attention, was removed from the pedestal in the museum it had occupied for longer than anyone remembered and placed inside a glass case along with a number of other objects and information boards which explained his role in the foundation of the museum and his connection to West Indian slavery.  This simple act meant that Sir Hans Sloane had, as far as some people were concerned, been 'cancelled'.  Dr Fischer somewhat undermined the reasonable course of action the museum had taken by excitedly telling the Daily Telegraph that “we have pushed him off the pedestal. We must not hide anything. Healing is knowledge,” before going on to defend the Museum’s stance on accepting corporate sponsorship from BP. The tabloids remained resolutely uninterested in the kerfuffle; the fuss wasn’t about Winston Churchill and no one had been pushed into a dock, so who cares? Charles Moore rushed to Soanes defence in the Spectator arguing that Dr Fischer had reacted “unprofessionally, in panic clothed as principle — and with base ingratitude” to the museum's founding father. David Olusoga responded to the article in the Guardian pointing out that “Britain is gradually coming to the end of a very different and highly effective process of historical erasure that has endured for centuries. What bothers critics of the museum is that the new display makes plain the fact that much of the wealth Sloane used to purchase his vast collection was derived from slavery.” The Belfast Telegraph wasn’t having any of that, Sir Hans a slave owner!; “Hans Sloane never owned a slave,” claimed Elizabeth Crilley, the CEO and founder of the Sir Hans Sloane Centre in Sir Hans’ birthplace Killyleagh, County Down, “a man of the church sent him a slave but Hans Sloane educated him and put him on a boat to France to get him on his feet." Ms Crilley acknowledged that some of Sir Hans’ money may have originated in slavery but that was not, she claimed, his fault; "Yes, he did get money, but how did he get his money? He fell in love with a woman. It was her father who was a slave trader. Are the sins of the father to be passed on to the children?" (Perhaps only if the money is!)

In his Spectator article Charles Moore gives a concise account, the Pro Sloane version, of Sir Han’s life;

'Dedication to truthfulness when it comes to history is absolutely crucial,’ says Dr Fischer. In that spirit of truthfulness, it might be worth pausing to consider the life of Hans Sloane. Born in Northern Ireland in 1660, he studied chemistry and its medical applications, with particular interest in botany’s relation to physic. He became a doctor, and a great collector. When serving the governor of Jamaica, he systematically explored the topography of the island and recorded and collected its flora, bringing 800 specimens home to England. His published catalogue of the plants of Jamaica was probably the most truly scientific of his era in the genre, paving the way for Linnaeus. He was for 68 years a fellow of the Royal Society, taking charge of the publication of its transactions and serving as secretary. He succeeded Isaac Newton as its president. Sloane was also physician in charge of Christ’s Hospital in London, returning his salary to the place and supporting the cost-price dispensary of the Royal College of Physicians. As doctor to Queen Anne, he is credited with prolonging her life, thus securing the Hanoverian succession. He was a pioneer supporter of inoculation, popularised quinine and promoted the mixing of chocolate with milk in the cause both of profit and temperance. Sloane was noted for his learning, his consistent benevolence, his modesty and being very ‘attentive to Matters of Fact’. He conveyed the Chelsea Physick Garden, which he owned, to the care of the Society of Apothecaries. It flourishes beautifully to this day. The grateful society commissioned a statue and a bust of Sloane by Rysbrack. Sloane’s daughters presented these works to the British Museum. It is Rysbrack’s bust which Dr Fischer has now gleefully ‘pushed off its pedestal’, inviting visitors, as from this week, to disapprove of its subject.

'Chelsea with Part of the Old Church & Sir Hans Sloane’s Tomb' William Parrott 1840

In the Guardian David Olusoga placed a different emphasis on the facts of Sir Han’s life;

Every contrivance has been deployed to distance Sloane from slavery. As the wealth he accumulated from plantations in Jamaica came to him through marriage, it has been suggested that his involvement was merely tangential. Yet upon Sloane’s marriage to Elizabeth Langley Rose, one-third of the income from her plantations and her human property became his. In one of his letters, Sloane proudly talked of himself as a planter, the 18th-century euphemism for slave owner.

Those who have felt the sudden need to write hagiographies of Sloane have attempted to portray him as an almost accidental beneficiary of slavery, yet he not only grew rich from the sugar shipped from his wife’s Jamaican plantations, he actively invested in the slave trading South Sea Company. No matter how much we are asked to look only at his talents as a physician and his passion for botany and collecting, the fact remains that much of the money Sloane used to purchase the objects that today lie within our national museum came from the murderous exploitation of African men, women and children.

Sloane’s achievements remain undimmed, but while he stood on a pedestal the significance of slavery to his life and to his collection was rendered invisible. Acknowledging this unpleasant reality is all the museum has sought to do.

Sir Hans Sloane's Tomb, Chelsea - James Peller Malcolm c1800

Sir Hans’ memorial in Chelsea Old Churchyard is rather splendid. It is in such a good state of preservation that I couldn’t help wondering if it is built of Coade stone. It isn’t according to the official Historic England listing: “Monument to Sir Hans Sloane, deceased 1753. Portland stone square pedestal with inscription and swags, surmounted by square, vaulted canopy, sheltering marble urn.” The inscription reads:

In memory of Sir Hans Sloane, Bart, President of the Royal Society and of the Collage of Physicians, who died in the year of our Lord 1753, the ninety-second year of his age, without least pain of body, and with a conscious serenity of mind eniled [sic] a virtuous and beneficent life. This monument was erected by his two daughters, Elizabeth Cadogan and Sarah Stanley

Friday, 24 June 2022

Buried Garden; Lockdown with the Lost Poets of Abney Park Cemetery - Chris McCabe (Penned in the Margins £9.99)


‘A spectral circuit of London, more mysterious than the M25.’ - Iain Sinclair

If you take two niche interests, such as cemeteries and poetry, and deal with them in one book, do you increase your potential readership to all those interested in either of your subjects? Or do you reduce it to a pitiful fraction, appealing only to those readers who are interested in both subjects? To a poet like McCabe used to the miniscule sales that poetry attracts, the market for prose must seem vast in either case.

‘Buried Garden; lockdown with the lost poets of Abney Park Cemetery’ is the fourth instalment of poet McCabe’s projected heptalogy chronicling his quixotic quest for forgotten poets in London’s magnificent seven cemeteries. Published on October 31st last year (to coincide with Halloween presumably) it was launched with a late afternoon tour of Abney Park hosted by the author and Iain Sinclair, who has taken an interest in some of the previous volumes in the series and features heavily in this one.  The series began with ‘In The Catacombs – a summer amongst the dead poets of West Norwood’ in 2014, and continued with ‘Cenotaph South – mapping the lost poets of Nunhead Cemetery’ in 2016 and ‘The East Edge – Nightwalks with the dead poets of Tower Hamlets’ in 2019.  Although we can’t be sure in which order McCabe will tackle the remaining three cemeteries, or how long he will take to produce new books, extrapolating from his current work rate we will hopefully see new volumes on Brompton and Kensal Green at some point in the next four years and I would guess that the series will terminate with a magnum opus on Highgate circa 2028. I have read all of the first four books since January and now find myself having to wait a couple of years for the next instalment.

Chris McCabe photographed in Abney Park Cemetery by Tom Chivers

From the first book the author himself freely admits that the search for a forgotten poet of the calibre of Emily Dickinson or Gerard Manley Hopkins is probably doomed to failure, but of course, you never know. With admirable grit traces the lost graves and the forgotten works of poets who often enjoyed some degree of popular or critical acclaim in their lifetimes and then reads their mouldy old tomes. The reading is inevitably a disappointment; the forgotten poems generally high Victorian doggerel. McCabe subjects this unworthy verse to genuinely serious criticism; I admire his dedication but the resulting pages don’t make for gripping reading. His biographical details are more interesting though apart from Tower Hamlets William Onions, a malefactor who was arrested over 500 times for various petty misdemeanours before turning his excess energies to the production of second-rate poetry, his poets are a pretty staid lot.

Luckily McCabe is the sort of writer who finds it difficult to stick to his subject.  His book on Nunhead starts with news of his mum’s cancer and an account of planting a tree in Bootle to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of his father’s death. As well as the completely forgettable poets buried in the cemetery, he explores poets and writers who have some general connection with Nunhead (or Dulwich, or Peckham); Blake, Browning, Barry MacSweeney, and B.S. Johnson. As if one futile quest isn’t enough, he sets off trying to locate Blake’s angel tree on Dulwich Common and eventually comes to the conclusion that this was probably not, as generally accepted, an oak but a hawthorn in bloom, the angels being nothing more than hawthorn blossom. Leavening the mix are short pieces of experimental prose. McCabes broad themes and preoccupations, poetry, London, Liverpool, death, cemeteries, autobiography etc somehow, over the course of the four books, manage to coalesce this apparent ragbag of subjects into a coherent whole.  These are not polished, well-structured works of prose but I found myself warming to McCabe and his imperfections and enjoying his company. I was rather sad to reach the end of ‘Buried Garden’ with a long wait in prospect until I can spend more time with the author. 

Friday, 17 June 2022

Seeing Wonderful Things; Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907) St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green


Where, when and how black American sculptor Edmonia Lewis died was, until as recently as 2010, a mystery. Her ethnic background, artistic ability and presence in Europe meant that she achieved some measure of celebrity during her lifetime but she eventually slipped into an obscurity so profound that rumours of her death started to circulate even whilst she was still alive. After researching Lewis’ life since the 1980’s US cultural historian Marilyn Richardson probably couldn’t believe her luck when the 1901 census went on line and she found the artist’s name at 37 Store Street in Bloomsbury (just around the corner from the British Museum). With the help of a London based US lawyer, Scott Varland, she eventually located Lewis’ will and probate records. These showed that Lewis died on 17 September 1907 in the Hammersmith borough infirmary on Goldhawk Road, had been living at 154 Blythe Road, W14 and left effects worth £489 0s 1d.  The cause of death recorded on her death certificate was nephritis, then called Brights disease, a chronic inflammation of the kidneys. Burial records revealed that she was interred in St Mary’s Catholic cemetery in Kensal Green where her grave is marked by a flat ledger style stone on which all traces of any inscription have long since weathered away. The anonymity of the grave led another admirer, Bobbie Reno, the town historian of East Greenbush, a suburb of Albany, to set up a GoFundMe page to raise the money necessary to create a new marker. Unfortunately, only around a dozen people contributed and the diminutive black marble box with Edmonia’s name, profession and dates inscribed in gold lettering is rather underwhelming. In Mount Auburn cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts Edmonia’s statue of Hygeia marks the grave of Harriot Kezia Hunt, a pioneer female doctor who died in 1875. It is a shame that not even a copy of one of her own works marks her grave. 

Sparked by Edmonia’s move to Rome, an account of her early life appeared in the Athenaeum in 1866 and was heavily drawn upon in numerous newspaper accounts of what was obviously seen as a  noteworthy oddity; not only a black artist, but a female one to boot:

A Negro Sculptress — Rome, Feb., 1866 —An interesting novelty has sprung up amongst us, in a city where all our surroundings are of the olden time. Miss Edmonia Lewis, a lady of colour, has taken a studio at Rome, and works as a sculptress in one of the rooms formerly occupied by the great master, Canova. She is the only lady of her race in the United States who has thus applied herself to the study and practice of sculptural art, and the fact is so remarkable and unique that a brief sketch of her life, given almost in her own words, will, I am sure, be acceptable to the wide circle of your readers:- “My mother,’’ she told me only last Monday, was a wild Indian, and was born in Albany, of copper colour, and with straight, black hair. There she made and sold moccasins. My father, who was a negro, and a gentleman’s servant, saw her and married her. I was born in Greenhigh, in Ohio. Mother often left her home and wandered with her people, whose habits she could not forget, and thus her children were brought up in the same wild manner. Until I was twelve years old I led this wandering life, fishing and swimming,” she added with great glee, “and making moccasins. I was then sent to school for three years in M'Graw, but was declared to be wild—they could do nothing with me. Often they said to me, ‘Here is your book, the book of Nature; come and study it.’ From this school I was seat to another, at Oblin, Ohio, where I remained four years, and then I thought of returning to wild life again; but my love of sculpture forbade it.

Some of my friends recommended me to go to England, but I thought it better first to study in Rome.” And here she is, the descendant and member of a much-injured race, struggling against ignorant prejudice, but with genius enough to prove that she bears the image of Him who made all the nations under the sun. Whilst her youth and her colour claim our warmest sympathies, Miss Edmonia Lewis has a very engaging appearance and manners. Her eyes and the upper part of her face are fine; the crisp hair and thick lips, on the other hand, bespeak her negro paternity. Naive in manner, happy and cheerful, and all unconscious of difficulty, because obeying great impulse, she prattles like a child, and with much simplicity and spirit pours forth all her aspirations.

At present she has little to show; she appeals to the patronage and protection of the civilised and the Christian world. There is the cast of a bust of Colonel Shaw, who commanded the first coloured regiment that was ever formed, and who died “a leader for all time in Freedom’s Chivalry.” The bust was executed from a photograph, and now, as a commission from the sister of Colonel Shaw, is being transferred to marble. Another commission is a bust of Mr. Dio. Lewis, I believe, of New York. Her first ideal group was to be executed under promise for some gentleman in Boston, and in the true spirit of a heroine, she has selected for her subject “The Freedwoman on first hearing of her liberty.” She has thrown herself on her knees, and, with clasped hands and uplifted eyes, she blesses God for her redemption. Her boy, ignorant of the cause of her agitation, hangs over her knees and clings to her waist. She wears the turban which was used when at work. Around her wrists are the half-broken manacles and the chain lies on the ground still attached to a large ball. “Yes,” she observed, “so was my race treated in the market and elsewhere.” It fells, with much eloquence, a painful story. —Athenaeum.

Henry James was resident in Rome at this time and was scathing about the artistic community of his fellow Americans who had also made their home there. He was particularly vituperative about women artists in general and Edmonia in particular. “One of the sisterhood was a Negress,” he wrote, “whose colour, picturesquely contrasting with that of her plastic material, was the pleading agent of her fame.” On 26 January this year the US postal service issued a commemorative stamp celebrating Edmonia’s life and work – just 6 years after they issued their Henry James one in 2016. Edmonia’s most famous work, the Death of Cleopatra is now on prominent display in the Smithsonian in Washington. It has an interesting history; it was created for the 1886 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and caused something of a stir amongst visitors and critics (“It is a question whether a statue of the ghastly characteristics of this one does not overstep the bounds of legitimate art,” said one commentator. Endlessly portrayed in art, Edmonia’s version of the death of the Egyptian queen has not an asp in sight and she reclines, one breast exposed, on her throne in her death throes. After the exhibition it was sent to Illinois to feature in the Chicago Interstate Industrial Exposition of 1878.  The massive two-ton statue was then abandoned in a Chicago storage facility until 1892 when it was removed, almost certainly without Edmonia’s permission (or payment of any compensation) placed outside a saloon on Clark Street as a decorative backdrop for the bourbon and beer drinkers of Windy City. It was later bought by a professional gambler and racetrack tycoon called Blind John Condon who used it a tombstone for his favourite horse (obviously called Cleopatra) who was buried at Harlem Racetrack (in Forest Park, Illinois).  The site of the racetrack became a US mail depot in the 1970’s and the statue found itself back in storage yard from where it was rescued by a fire inspector who allowed his son’s boy scout troop to paint it white. By the 1980’s it was in storage in a shopping mall; in 1988, Frank Orland, a dentist from Forest Park, wrote to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, asking about the artist Edmonia Lewis as he had a piece of work by her, he said, depicting the death of Cleopatra. A curator forwarded the letter to Marilyn Richardson, who recently put out an ad in the New York Times Book Review asking about Edmonia.  Richardson struggled to get hold of the dentist so she flew to Chicago and tracked down his residence where his wife helpfully took her to the storage facility for the historian’s first sight of Edmonia’s masterpiece; a moment almost as moving as Howard Carter's first glimpse of Tutankhamun's tomb ('Can you see anything?' 'Yes, wonderful things.'). “It was just standing there in the storage area, surrounded by holiday decorations and papier-mâché turkeys and Christmas lights and Christmas elves,” Richardson said. “I was shaking.”

Friday, 10 June 2022

Side by side for eternity; Sir Richard Francis Burton KCMG FRGS (1821-1890) & Lady Isabel Burton (1831-1896) St Mary Magdalen, Mortlake


This must be the first tomb I ever made a special point of visiting, back in 1987, I think, when I lived in Barnes. We rented a gloomy basement flat in one of the palatial villas that line both sides of the road about half way down Castelnau. The villas, built in in the 1840’s were almost all occupied by the rich and successful except for ours which was divided into a multitude of small flats and rented out by a wealthy landlord as ancient and desiccated as an unwrapped pharaonic mummy. I had no special interest in cemeteries at the time, despite my landlord looking like he had just been dug up from one, but I was fascinated by Sir Richard Burton. I had been reading Fawn Brodie’s biography of the Victorian explorer, ‘The Devil Drives’, and was interested to discover that he was buried in Mortlake, a half hour walk away from our flat. The mausoleum stands in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen on North Worpole Way, a high Victorian, gothic revival catholic church dating from the 1850’s.  The tomb was Grade II listed in 1973 but 15 years later it was looking rather neglected, black with soot and threatened by aggressive ivy growth. I had no idea that around the back of the mausoleum was a ladder that allowed you to climb up and peep through a glass window at the coffins of Burton and his wife Isabel. I only had the pleasure of that experience nearly thirty years later when I returned in 2016 to find that the mausoleum had been recently cleaned and renovated. That is when I took these pictures.

Does Richard Burton need any introduction? His obituaries described him as an ‘eminent Eastern traveller and Orientalist’. Wikipedia sum him up as “a British explorer, writer, scholar, and soldier... famed for his travels and explorations in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures.” He was supposedly fluent in 29 languages as well as having a grasp of numerous dialects. He travelled to Mecca and was the first European to see Lake Tangyanika, failed to find the source of the Nile, and translated numerous works from Arabic and Sanskrit including an unexpurgated Arabian Nights. He was also endlessly fascinated by smut and loved to shock his contemporaries with stories of exotic sexual practises in Africa and Asia. He married Isabel Arundell in 1861 when he was 40 and she was 30. They had met a decade earlier but Burton only proposed when he returned from the Crimean war in 1856. Her family were opposed to the match; not only was Burton a swashbuckling explorer who spent little time at home, he was also not a Roman Catholic, unlike the aristocratic Arundells; family disapproval finally faded away when Burton promised to raise any children as Catholics. Shortly after their marriage they were separated for several years when Burton was appointed Consul to Fernando Po in Equatorial Guinea. They were reunited in 1865 when Burton received a new posting to Santos in Brazil. From there she followed him to further postings in Damascus and, finally, in 1872 to Trieste, where Burton remained as Consul until his death in 1890. A photograph from the late 1880’s shows the couple in the garden of the consulate, Burton dapper and distinguished in grey frock coat and top hat but Isabel, apparently wagging an admonishing finger at her husband, frumpy in what look like premature widow’s bombazine weeds.  

Burton died of a heart attack in the early morning of 20 October 1890. Isabel controversially called in a catholic priest to perform the last rites. Many of Burton’s friends suspected that these were performed after Burton was already dead as he made no attempt when alive to disguise his atheism. She further alienated Burton’s supporters when she burned some of his manuscripts including some of his journals and a new translation of The Scented Garden (despite having been offered 6000 guineas for it by a publisher).  Just a few days after his death newspapers, like the St James's Gazette on 23 October were reporting Burton’s funeral as having taken place in Trieste:

FUNERAL OF SIR RICHARD BURTON. The funeral of the late Sir Richard Burton took place at Trieste yesterday afternoon. The ceremony was of an impressive character, being attended by the Governor, with the principal civil the military and naval staff officers, and all the members of the Trieste Consular body well as a large number of private mourners. The funeral car was covered with beautiful wreaths.

Of course Burton was not buried in Trieste in October 1890, his funeral took place in Mortlake 8 months later, on Monday 15 June 1891. He spent his time between arriving in England and being interred in the mausoleum in the crypt of St Mary Magdalen waiting for his tomb to be built. The mausoleum was designed by Isabel as a Bedouin tent.  The Cheltenham Chronicle of 20 June 1891 gives the following account of the funeral arrangements:

The funeral of the late Captain Sir Richard Burton took place on Monday morning at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Mortlake. A numerous congregation of relatives and friends assembled at the invitation of Lady Burton, who was herself present, and the church was well filled. The requiem mass was sung by the Right Rev. Monsignor Stanley, of Spanish place Church, assisted by Fathers White, Regan and Cafferata. The music was by Casciolini and was rendered by a special choir of professionals. Father Cox's In Paradisum was sung on the removal of the coffin from the church to the cemetery adjoining, the concluding prayers being said at the graveside, by Provost Wenham, the priest of the mission. A harmonized Benedictus was then sung, during which Lady Burton and several friends laid wreaths of flowers by the side of the coffin. About 650 cards of invitation were issued by Lady Burton to friends and sympathisers, of whom about 400 were present. Among those were Marquis of Kipon, Marquis and Marchioness of Drogheda, Lord Arundell of Wardour….

The marble mausoleum erected by Sir Richard's English friends and admirers, is sculptured in dark Forest of Dean stone and white Carrara marble, it represents an Arab tent, 12ft by 12ft. and 15ft high, surmounted by a gilt star of nine points. Over the flap door of the tent is a white marble crucifix. The fringe is composed of gilt cressets and stars. The flap door of the tent supports an open book of white marble, on which are inscribed Sir Richard's name and the dates of his birth and decease, with a tablet below bearing the epitaph composed by Mr. Justin McCarthy.

Isabel used her years of widowhood to produce a hagiography of her husband and her own autobiography. She died of cancer 5 years after burying him, joining him in the mausoleum in March 1896;

The remains of Lady Burton, widow of Sir Richard Burton, the famous explorer, were removed from Baker-street on Thursday to Mortlake, and placed for the night in the Roman Catholic Church of St. Mary Magdalene. The coffin was surrounded by many beautiful wreaths sent by, among others, Lord and Lady Gerard, Lady Huntingtower, Lady Violet Beaumont, and Mrs. Oliphant. Yesterday there was a large congregation at the Requiem Mass which preceded the interment. The choir was composed solely of priests, and the service was throughout of the most impressive character. Included among the mourners were Mrs. Fitz Gerald, the Rev. the Hon. E. Arundell, Mr. Gerald Arundell, Mrs. Vanzellcr, and Mr. Bertram Pigott.  (Globe - Saturday 28 March 1896)

There was a minor scandal when the contents of Isabel’s will were made public a few months later. It was not the disposition of her assets that caused raised eyebrows (despite leaving a particular instruction “that her belongings at Baker-street, should not be scattered out to second-band shops”) but her directives about what should happen to her body. Evidently worried that she might be buried alive she ordered that her doctor should be called in and instructed to pierce her heart with a needle. Furthermore “the doctors attending, or some clever surgeon to be called in for the purpose, should make a post-mortem examination by removing the tumour, and that she should be embalmed by disembowelling and stuffing (not by the new process of injecting in the veins) in order that her body may be kept above ground by the side of her husband in the mausoleum tent at Mortlake.”  The Westminster Gazette (17 June 1896) went on to say that Lady Burton “stated that she had bought—adjoining the tent—a vault for four bodies, and that two places were to be reserved in order that if a revolution should occur in England, and there should be a threat of the desecration of the dead, the coffins of herself and her husband might be lowered into the vault.” She also left instructions to ensure the salvation of her, and her husband’s, souls;

She desired that immediately after her death a telegram which she had prepared should be sent to the Cure Achille Serre, in Paris, who is to receive £l20, or 3,000 francs, for 3,000 masses to be said at once, or 100 sets of Gregorian masses. The testatrix also provides an annuity to pay for a daily mass to be said in Paris perpetually, at one franc for each mass. She provides that a sum of £6O should be paid to the Bishop of Southwark, for five anniversary masses perpetually on the day of her wedding, on her own and her husband's birthdays, and on the day of her husband's death and of her death. She desired that her Carmelite dress and the scapular, which alone she stated she was worthy to wear, should be placed in her coffin.

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

There is a corner of a foreign field, that is forever Deutschland; Carl Hans Lody (1877-1914) East London Cemetery, Plaistow

The body of German spy Carl Hans Lody lies buried in a common grave in a far corner of the East London Cemetery in Plaistow.  He was executed just three months after the outbreak of the First World War, on 06 November 1914. Despite becoming something of a national hero in Germany his grave lay unmarked until a plain black marble headstone was finally put up in 1974. In the 1960’s, when they were planning to open their cemetery at Cannock Chase, the Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfursorge, the German War Graves Commission, had made enquiries about exhuming Lody and other German spies buried in Plaistow. Under British law they would have needed the permission of the relatives of the other people buried in the common graves; tracing the living relatives of up to five deceased paupers made this an almost impossible task.  

Lody was born in 1877 to a prosperous middle-class family in Berlin; his father was a government official who served as Mayor of the town of Oderburg, close to the Polish border. His father died after a short illness when Lody was 6 and just two years later, at the age of 8, he was left an orphan when his mother also died. He grew up in an orphanage of the Franke Foundations in Halle and at 14 was apprenticed to a grocer. At 16 he moved to Hamburg and signed up a cabin boy in a merchant ship before serving for a year in the Imperial German Navy. He became a naval reservist whilst working on merchant ships but his fortunes took a turn for the better when he found a job working as a tour guide for the Hamburg America Line. One of his clients was a 23-year-old wealthy German American heiress Louise Storz of Omaha, Nebraska. They were married in the US in 1912 but in the face of staunch opposition from Lody’s in laws the marriage lasted a mere three months. The newly wed reputedly accepted $10,000 from his father-in-law to divorce his bride. Lody returned to Berlin and lived a lavish lifestyle until his $10,000 dollars ran out. Speaking excellent English and familiar with the United States Lody was recruited as a naval spy in May 1914. With little or no training, he was posted to Scotland under the cover name Charles A. Inglis with a false American passport, arriving in Newcastle from Denmark on 27 August 1914 to report on naval movements in the Firth of Forth. His very first despatch to his handlers was intercepted by M15 as it was sent to an address in Stockholm known to be a postbox for German spies. From then it was only a matter of time before he was arrested. He remained at large, but under observation by MI5 for just over a month, all his reports intercepted but some allowed to reach his superiors if the information they contained was harmless or incorrect. Suspecting that the British authorities were onto him he fled to Ireland where he was arrested on 02 October at the Great Southern Hotel in Killarney.

Lody was publicly tried for the crime of War Treason at the Middlesex Guildhall on 30 October. The trial lasted three days and was the only public trial for espionage conducted in either of the world wars. His admission of guilt and his dignified demeanour gained Lody much public support but neither this, nor the fact that he had not been able to pass on any information even remotely useful to the German war effort, did not stop him being sentenced to death. He was executed by firing squad at the Tower of London on 6 November. The following account of his execution comes from the Aberdeen Evening Express of Wednesday 11 November 1914:


Describing the military execution of Carl Hans Lody. the German spy, in the Tower of London, the Daily Mail says he was executed by shooting on Friday last. To the very end he maintained his calm imperturbability which characterised him throughout the three days’ trial, and when facing the firing party refused to be blindfolded. The execution took place in the miniature rifle range at the Tower just as dawn was breaking. Overnight Lody. who had been duly told his fate, was removed from Wellington Barracks, where he had been confined since the trial, to the Tower and given accommodation in one of the guard rooms. Later eight men under the command of a sergeant and an officer marched to the fortress. Just before daybreak the soldiers were roused and marched to the rifle range, being followed immediately, by Lody, who walked quite firmly into the place of execution. He seated himself in a chair at the far end of the range. Folding his arms and crossing his legs he leant back. The sergeant cried "Present—fire." The eight rifles rang out with one report, and Lody was dead. Subsequently his body was buried within the precincts of the Tower. The sentence was not directly disclosed on Tuesday, November 3, when the Court-Martial came to an end, but it was evident to all present when the Judges returned after six minutes' deliberation that their verdict was “Guilty." This was confirmed by the subsequent question of the Judge, who, instead of ordering the prisoner's release, asked him if he had any statement to make, to which Lody replied unflinchingly, “No, not on my own behalf." Two or three hours after the execution of Lody, Mr Wynne E. Baxter, Coroner for the Eastern and Liberty of Tower District, went through the legal formality of inquiring into his death. The jury was composed of men engaged in the Tower of London. The warrant ordering the execution was produced. A military doctor certified that death was caused by gunshot wounds, and the jury returned a verdict accordingly.

Friday, 20 May 2022

The Garden of Earthly Delights; Cemitério dos Prazeres, Lisbon


I have been a little pushed for time lately and not been able to post as often as I would like. When I saw this interesting article about Lisbon’s Cemitério dos Prazeres on Portuguese news site Mensagem de Lisboa it reminded me that I have been meaning to write about the cemetery since I first visited it back in 2014. Since then I have visited Prazeres many times and have taken literally hundreds of photographs. I thought sharing the article would give me the opportunity to use a few of my photos and save me the hassle of having to write the text myself. Translating Alvaro Filho’s article would be much quicker than writing something from scratch, right? Wrong. I thought I would just have to put the original text through google translate, correct the obvious errors and polish up the English a little bit.  But the output from google translate is riddled with errors and ungrammatical to the point of incomprehensibility at times; it took me a lot longer than I thought to produce this. Still, it was worth the effort – it is an excellent article on a fascinating cemetery. I just hope I don’t get sued for breach of copyright:    

For two decades historian Licínio Fidalgo has been clocking in for work amongst the mausoleums and crypts of the renowned Cemitério dos Prazeres in Lisbon. For the last seven years he has been the senior official responsible for the cemetery which opened in 1833 and today occupies 12 hectares, has seven thousand tombs and around a million permanent inhabitants.

The liveliness of Licínio’s walk is at odds with his sepulchral profession. The jovial 62-year-old is an enthusiastic guide who leads us through the lush cypresses of the cemetery to the bowels of a colossal pyramid-shaped mausoleum. Here a crypt opens into two floors and holds dozens of coffins; a setting straight out of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s more gothic tales. Totally undaunted, Licínio gropes through the shadows, flashlight in hand. The narrow hallway, no more than five feet wide, is flanked by coffins that rest on stone shelves. The faltering air supply descends from the surface through a small duct and gently sways a spider’s web. Our path ends in a large chamber; our guide shines the beam of his torch into the gloom to reveal walls packed floor to ceiling with tombs.

Being at ease in the presence of skeletal remains has been, if you will pardon the pun, the backbone of Licínio’s career. Licínio has been working at Cemitério dos Prazeres for 20 years, the last seven as general administrator, a kind of mayor of the necropolis.  The geography of the cemetery is a reflection of the living city outside its walls, with its alleys, courtyards, roads, traditional Portuguese houses and even a spectacular view of the river Tejo and the 25 de Abril bridge. This city of the dead spreads over almost 30 acres, houses seven thousand tombs and about a million permanent inhabitants, buried during the two hundred years since Prazeres opened in 1833. And like other any other city it is subject to myriad problems and challenges that Licínio faces with apparent tranquillity, all in the name of maintaining peace – in this case, eternal peace – in the cemetery.

Licínio, a historian with a degree from the Lisbon Faculty of Arts, hails originally from Coimbra and arrived in the capital as a child. His career began at the city council’s Office for Lisbon Studies; professional life among the tombs and mausoleums was purely down to chance. “There was a major restructuring in the local authority and, before finding myself redeployed somewhere I didn’t want to be, I started asking around about other jobs. Then, a friend told me: come here and see this, you'll like it. So I went, I saw and as promised I liked!” he says.

The friend had referred him to the Cemetery Management Division of the city council. In his first 15 years in his new position, Licínio divided his time between all Lisbon's cemeteries, overseeing the maintenance and restoration of the monuments, or looking after students carrying out research for their master and doctoral theses. In 2014 his dedication culminated in a promotion to coordinate the most iconic necropolis in the Portuguese capital. His background in history makes the manager see Prazeres with the eyes of a museum visitor. “This is a building with traces of Art Nouveau and clear Masonic iconography”, he says in a professorial tone, pointing to the imposing mausoleum of Pedro de Sousa Holstein, the Duke of Palmela, a pyramidal structure 40 feet high, Europe's largest private tomb.  Built in 1849 on a two acre plot, the mausoleum is a complex structure that houses a cemetery in front of the pyramid, which in turn contains a mausoleum and a crypt. In all 200 bodies rest there. “Outside, here are the Duke's servants,” explains Licínio, pointing to the large plot, “following Masonic tradition, the men buried on the right and the women on the left.”

Licinius points out that the term ‘burial’ is sometimes misused. “These were actually buried, as they are in contact with the earth,” he explains, referring to the duke's servants who lie in the ground, “but those who are in the mausoleum or the crypt, no. There, there is inhumation, a process whose opposite is exhumation,” he explains. This small detail contains a social distinction. The burials, in direct contact with the ground, are simpler and cheaper, because the bodies tend to deteriorate faster. The vaults are isolated from the earth by stone shelves and the coffins are lined with lead or zinc. “To preserve the body longer. Nobody wants to take the risk of being resurrected on Judgment Day with one less phalange”, the historian elucidates. Still in the funerary semantic field, the term “mausoleum” denotes a superior status. Most of the tombs are simpler, built to house the coffin at the bottom and the top decorated with a stone frame or a small chapel. The most illustrious dead, such as the Duke of Palmela, are in mausoleums with the right to a crypt, a basement where you can walk among the dead. Social distinction is also ornamental. The largest tomb in Europe has undergone several changes over the years. The pyramidal format was one of them, as was the retreat of the pediment and the inclusion of new Greek columns. Inside, the Duke's granddaughter, the third Duchess of Palmela, Maria Luísa de Sousa Holstein, hired the Italian Giuseppe Cinatti to produce marble sculptures. Born in Siena, José Cinatti – as he was popularly known in Lisbon– became famous for his set designs at the São Carlos and Dona Maria II theatres. He was not the only Italian to create funerary sculptures for Prazeres. Another scenographer, Luigi Manini, designed the tomb of Carvalho Monteiro, the owner of the famous Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra, a merchant so rich that he became known as Monteiro of the Millions.

The tomb of “Monteiro dos Milhões” is the location for another of the cemeteries curious stories; the key that opens the mausoleum door is, according to legend, the same that opened the front doors of Carvalho Monteiro’s mansion in Quinta da Regaleira and his house in Lisbon, on Rua do Alecrim. The eccentricity of the prosperous merchant, who kept the key to his eternal abode in his pocket until his last breath, had a very mundane origin. Carvalho Monteiro made his fortune in Brazil and rumour had it that when he returned to Portugal, he disguised himself as a beggar. “His own sister would have driven him from the door of the family home but his mother scolded her and ordered her to serve the stranger some soup. After the prodigal merchant had revealed his identity, he always took care of his mother, but when he died he did not leave any inheritance for his sister”, says Licínio, suggesting that part of his fortune would have been buried with him.

A curious story, but not like that of the military engineer Aniceto da Rocha and his quadrangular tomb, ornamented with a… dice. “Maybe he wanted to dice with death”, quips Licínio. Cunning, Aniceto designed a loaded dice, the sum of values ​​on opposite faces does not equal seven, like a true dice. Despite the ruse, the engineer was unable to outwit death and ended up losing the bet. Death, however, found Aniceto da Rocha standing. “He seems to have taken the expression 'the military die standing up' seriously”, explains Licínio. The engineer designed his tomb so that the coffin was placed in it vertically. The tomb opening system is also ingenious; a handle is attached to the dice and, when activated, opens the lock, turns the dice and slowly makes the lid slide open.

Not for a moment imagining he was trying to outwit the grim reaper, the prosperous Spanish coffee trader Francisco Mantero donated 70 percent of his fortune to the charity of Santa Casa de Misericórdia and his body to science. Owner of the fabulous Quintas das Conchas e dos Lilases in Lisbon, Mantero suffered from a degenerative disease and was buried in two stages: first, his torso, and then his head. The mausoleum of the Mantero Family is still under the care of the Santa Casa. It stands out for the beautiful Byzantine-style mosaic at the top of the façade showing the image of a Christ Pantocrator, with his hand in the position of blessing. Inside, you can see two tombs, a larger one with the merchant's body and a smaller one, where his head was buried.

There are also those who, whilst still alive, wished to keep their eye on their inevitable future. The tomb of the cocoa merchant José Luís Constantino Dias, the Viscount of Valle Flor, was built in one of the highest parts of Prazeres. “So it could be seen by the viscount from his mansion, almost two kilometers from the cemetery, in Alto de Santo Amaro”, says Licínio. The tomb is the second largest in the Cemitério dos Prazeres, only smaller than the pyramid of the Duke of Palmela. The palace from where the viscount viewed his current home is now the luxurious Pestana Palace and its architecture served as the inspiration for the mausoleum, a kind of miniature version of it. Unlike the Palace, which is now a hotel, the tomb only has spaces for 64 guests.

A plot in Prazeres is not for ordinary mortals. Currently, there are generally vacancies in the plots reserved for writers (I therefore live in hope) and also for actors, agents of the Polícia de Segurança Pública and firefighters. “Although the burial concession is a prerogative of the city council, customarily the appropriate professional association contacts the administration and requests the plot”, explains Licínio.  The area for firefighters is the oldest of the occupational plots in the cemetery. It dates from 1878 and was designed by Dias da Silva, the architect responsible for Lisbon’s bull ring, the Campo Pequeno. There were a few victims of the current pandemic laid to rest in Prazeres, a continuation of the  original purpose of the necropolis, which was created to deal with the cholera epidemic that swept Lisbon in 1833.

Before then, burials in the city took place in consecrated ground, in or around churches. A royal prohibition of intramural interment in churches, on health grounds, led to the creation of cemeteries. A site on the high ground overlooking Alcântara in the west of the capital, was one of the natural choices for a new cemetery, partly because burials already took place there at the hermitage of Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres, next to a holy well whose waters had been credited with healing properties since the 16th century.  Today the holy well is a forgotten fountain on Possidónio da Silva street. The hermitage chapel was sold at the beginning of the 20th century and converted into a tavern but despite this the name lives on, bequeathed to the nearby cemetery.

For those who have never written a book, trodden the boards on stage, arrested a criminal or extinguished a fire, the alternative is to compete for a abandoned tomb. Licínio stops in front of one of them, on avenue number 1, under the shade of leafy cypresses. It belongs to the family of Comendador José Pereira Soares. A pinned notice announces that it is considered abandoned and will soon be available for public auction. Article 66 of the Municipal Cemeteries’ Regulations considers any mausoleum abandoned where the current owners or their whereabouts are unknown or they have not exercised their rights for a period of at least 15 years. “After the plots are identified, the administration puts up a public notice and the owners have 60 days to contact us. Otherwise, the tomb is declared abandoned”, says Licínio. The Comendador's tomb will be among the 30 plots that will go up for auction but no date has been set yet. It is a small chapel style mausoleum with space for up to eight occupants. It is well located; the poet Fernando Pessoa was as a neighbour for a few years (until he was exhumed and reinterred in the Jerónimos monastery in Belem). “It's a mixed model,” says Licínio, “which can easily cost 30 thousand euros.” He does the arithmetic in his head, basing it on the assumption that the last one of the same size sold for 26 thousand. The laborious calculation of the value of a tomb or mausoleum, involves the area (not just on the surface, but also the depth), the state of conservation and the typology. The simplest ones, with only one stone frame – the “needle” type – enclose the dead underground. In the “chapel” model of mausoleum, the occupants are interred above ground, while in the “mixed”, as the name suggests, there are interments above ground and burials in a vault.

Despite the light rain, a couple calmly walks their baby among the tombstones. Licínio watches the pram go over a crossroads, one of many that intersect the 52 avenues in the Cemitério dos Prazeres. “The city of the dead is a mirror of the city of the living”, the administrator observes, as he guides us to the viewing point, at the far end of the cemetery, a small patio with an open view to the Tagus and the 25 de Abril bridge. An empty wine bottle suggests that the living have been here, contemplating the sight of the dead. Our guide confirms that, like other famous cemeteries in the world, Prazeres is often frequented by those who haven't yet kicked the bucket. Licínio cites the example  of Père-Lachaise, in Paris, where fans make pilgrimages from all over the world just to take a drink next to the tombs where their idols rest, or try to rest,  during their eternal sleep. The mention of the Parisian cemetery is no accident. “Père-Lachaise was the template at the time the cemetery was built, and served as a direct inspiration. In a way, Prazeres is a slightly smaller version of the Parisian cemetery”, says the historian who whilst on holiday, usually spends at least one day of his trip touring of the cemeteries of the cities he visits. “There is always something to learn”, he explains. Mirroring itself on a Parisian cemetery did not stop Prazeres developing its own character. For example, the mausoleums in the shape of Portuguese houses, decorated with azulejos on the facade, windows and eaves and threshing floors on the roof; a style of funerary architecture quite popular in the middle of the last century and found only here.

What he learned and still learns about life among the dead Licínio Fidalgo shares with the thousands of people who in recent years have also dedicated a few hours to strolling amongst the tombs. He and Gisela Monteiro, a mathematician who recalculated her career path and now assists him at the cemetery, are responsible for various guided tours that take place at least once a month in Prazeres. These tours are free, the itineraries are published monthly on the on the city council website. With an average customer rating of 4.5 on Tripadvisor , the tours range from an overview of the cemetery to more specialised tours dedicated to the writers, musicians and women buried there, and to Freemasonry. One of the most popular is the Fernando Pessoa tour, an illustrious guest of Prazeres, until he was moved to Jerónimos, in 1985. The poet's mother, Dionizia, and his great love, Ofélia Queiroz, however, are still here.  There is also a tour  of the most impressive funerary art; the arcane symbology carved onto tombs is enough to make Dan Brown envious - inverted torches, thread cut by scissors, broken columns - no ornament is by chance. “When most of the tombs were built, a large part of the population was illiterate. The symbols help those who cannot read to identify who is there, what they did and even how they died”, explains Licínio. The inverted torch, for example, symbolizes the extinguished flame of life, just like the scissor that cuts a thread. The broken column indicates a person who died prematurely. The beautiful female statues on top of the tombs are also representative: if they hold an anchor, they are Hope; a cross and a book, Faith; while the one surrounded by several children is Charity.

The tour of the Cemitério dos Prazeres ends where it started, in the large courtyard at the entrance. Before we finish there is still time for Licínio to indicate his last improvement: a plaque with the emblem of Sporting Lisbon on the tomb of José de Alvalade, the founder of the club. “Despite being a Benfica supporter, I thought it was absurd not to see a mention of our great rival in the cemetery. There are Benfica crests in several parts of the cemetery”, he tells me.  Licínio got in touch, via some friends of friends, with the current president of Sporting, Frederico Varandas and, at the end of October, he represented the club at a simple ceremony to install the Sporting emblem on the tomb of its founding member. All thanks to a benfiquista.

To cover the challenges of managing a necropolis – from maintenance to football heritage – Licínio has just 14 employees. “I really need twice as many,” he acknowledges. Apart from gravediggers, where he could easily take seven more; but it's not easy to recruit. “It's a demanding job emotionally and physically. Have you ever thought about what it's like to bury a dead person weighing 200 kilos?” The remuneration, however, is below the national minimum wage. The emotional costs are also heavy, and not just because of the constant contact with the grief of those saying their final goodbyes to loved ones. Sometimes there are incidents that call for coolness. “One day, a man who was attending his sister's funeral got sick, had a heart attack and died”, recalls Licínio, of the day he was expecting just one dead person and ended up with two. Despite conveniently being already in a cemetery, the second deceased was buried in another necropolis. Faced with constant challenges, the mayor of the immense city of the dead knows that it is impossible to please everyone, alive or not. We wanted to know if Licínio had a tomb reserved for himself in the territory he administers. "Of course not. And if I did, what if my successor had some reason to complain about my management?” he laughs, with the usual good humor, of someone who knows better than anyone, that everybody is going to be dead one day, you just have to give them time. 

Alvaro Filho