Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Matter of Life and Death

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Matter of Life and Death

Article excerpt

In the darkest corner of what must be the most dilapidated cemetery in London, a small mound rises to a height of about three feet. At its centre is a chestnut tree, beside which stands the stone figure of a woman, dressed in classical robes and conspicuously headless. Tall, white-flowering weeds have proliferated in the fortnight since my last visit, competing for attention with the empty fag packets and cider cans that litter the ground.

This, according to the plaque below me, was once the "favourite retirement of the late Isaac Watts"--the poet and hymnographer who wrote the words to "Joy to the World" and hundreds of other songs of praise. Watts lived in these grounds, in Abney Park, Stoke Newington, from 1736 until his death 12 years later at the age of 74. It wasn't always a wild space with weeds and tree roots upending gravestones; and I doubt that the grotto my partner and I chanced upon a minute or so away was always strewn with used condoms.

Abney Park opened as a non-denominational burial ground in 1840 and was one of the "magnificent seven" cemeteries of London, established to help alleviate overcrowding in local parishes. Almost 200,000 people are buried here; so many that, by the early 20th century, the phrase "to go to Abney Park" was slang for "to die".

But death has no dominion over this cemetery. It is teeming with life, from its 2,500 trees and shrubs to the woodland birds that dart chaotically across my path. …

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