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The Mode in Monuments


STRAY THOUGHTS IN HIGHGATE CEMETERY


On a sharp, sunlight morning, when the white clouds are drifting swiftly
across the luminous blue sky, there is no finer walk about London than
the Highgate ridge. One may stay awhile on the Archway looking down upon
the innumerable roofs of London stretching southward into the haze, and
shining here and there with the reflection of the rising sun, and then
wander on along the picturesque road by the college of Saint Aloysius to
the new Catholic church, and so through the Waterlow Park to the
cemetery. The Waterlow Park is a pleasant place, full of children and
aged persons in perambulators during the middle hours of the day, and in
the summer evening time a haunt of young lovers; but your early wanderer
finds it solitary save for Vertumnus, who, with L.C.C. on the front of
him, is putting in crocuses. So we wander down to the little red lodge,
whence a sinuous road runs to Hampstead, and presently into the close
groves of monuments that whiten the opposite slope.

How tightly these white sepulchres are packed here! How different this
congestion of sorrow from the mossy latitude of God's Acre in the
country! The dead are crammed together as closely as the living seemed
in that bird's-eye view from the Archway. There is no ample shadow of
trees, no tangled corners where mother earth may weave flower garlands
over her returning children. The monuments positively jostle and elbow
each other for frontage upon the footways. And they are so rawly clean
and assertive. Most of them are conspicuously new whitened, with
freshly-blackened or newly-gilt inscriptions, bare of lichen, moss, or
mystery, and altogether so restless that it seems to the meditative man
that the struggle for existence, for mere standing room and a show in
the world, still rages among the dead. The unstable slope of the hill,
with its bristling array of obelisks, crosses and urns, craning one
above another, is as directly opposed to the restfulness of the village
churchyard with its serene outspreading yews as midday Fleet Street to a
Sabbath evening amidst the Sussex hills. This cemetery is, indeed, a
veritable tumult of tombs.

Another thing that presently comes painfully home to one is the lack of
individuality among all these dead. Not a necessary lack of
individuality so much as a deliberate avoidance of it. As one wanders
along the steep, narrow pathways one is more and more profoundly
impressed by the wholesale flavour of the mourning, the stereotyping of
the monuments. The place is too modern for _memento mori_ and the
hour-glass and the skull. Instead, Slap & Dash, that excellent firm of
monumental masons, everywhere crave to be remembered. Truly, the firm of
Slap & Dash have much to answer for among these graves, and they do not
seem to be ashamed of it.

From one elevated point in this cemetery one can count more than a
hundred urns, getting at last weary and confused with the receding
multitude. The urn is not dissimilar to the domestic mantel ornament,
and always a stony piece of textile fabric is feigned to be thrown over
its shoulder. At times it is wreathed in stony flowers. The only variety
is in the form. Sometimes your urn is broad and squat, a Silenus among
urns; sometimes fragile and high-shouldered, like a slender old maid;
here an "out-size" in urns stalwart and strong, and there a dwarf
peeping quaintly from its wrapping. The obelisks, too, run through a
long scale of size and refinement. But the curious man finds no hidden
connection between the carriage of the monument and the character of the
dead. Messrs. Slap & Dash apparently take the urn or obelisk that comes
readiest to hand. One wonders dimly why mourners have this overwhelming
proclivity for Messrs. Slap & Dash and their obelisk and urn.

The reason why the firm produces these articles may be guessed at. They
are probably easy to make, and require scarcely any skill. The
contemplative man has a dim vision of a grimy shed in a back street,
where a human being passes dismally through life the while he chips out
an unending succession of these cheap urns and obelisks for his
employers' retailing. But the question why numberless people will
profane the memory of their departed by these public advertisements of
Slap & Dash, and their evil trade, is a more difficult problem. For
surely nothing could be more unmeaning or more ungainly than the
monumental urn, unless it be the monumental obelisk. The plain cross, by
contrast, has the tenderest meaning, and is a simple and fitting
monument that no repetition can stale.

The artistic cowardice of the English is perhaps the clue to the
mystery. Your Englishman is always afraid to commit himself to criticism
without the refuge of a _tu quoque_. He is covered dead, just as he is
covered living, with the "correct thing." A respectable stock-in-trade
is proffered him by the insinuating shopman, to whom it is our custom to
go. He is told this is selling well, or that is much admired. Heaven
defend that he should admire on his own account! He orders the stock urn
or the stock slab because it is large and sufficiently expensive for his
means and sorrow, and because he knows of nothing better. So we mourn as
the stonemason decrees, or after the example and pattern of the Smiths
next door. But some day it will dawn upon us that a little thought and a
search after beauty are far more becoming than an order and a cheque to
the nearest advertising tradesman. Or it may be we shall conclude that
the anonymous peace of a grassy mould is better than his commercial
brutalities, and so there will be an end of him.

One may go from end to end of this cemetery and find scarcely anything
beautiful, appropriate, or tender. A lion, ill done, and yet to some
degree impressive, lies complacently above a menagerie keeper, and near
this is a tomb of some imagination, with reliefs of the life of Christ.
In one place a grotesque horse, with a head disproportionately vast, is
to be seen. Perhaps among all these monuments the one to Mrs. Blake is
the most pleasing. It is a simply and quaintly executed kneeling figure,
with a certain quiet and pathetic reverence of pose that is strangely
restful against the serried vulgarity around it.

But the tradesman ghoul will not leave us; he follows us up and down,
indecently clamouring his name and address, and at last turns our
meditation to despair. Certain stock devices become as painful as
popular autotypes. There is the lily broken on its stalk; we meet it
here on a cross and there on an obelisk, presently on the pedestal of an
urn. There is the hand pointing upward, here balanced on the top of an
obelisk and there upon a cross. The white-robed angel, free from the
remotest shadow of expression, meets us again and again. "All this is
mine," says the tradesman ghoul. "Behold the names of me--Slap & Dash
here, the Ugliness Company there, and this the work of the Cheap and
Elegant Funeral Association. This is where we slew the art of sculpture.
These are our trophies that sculpture is no more. All this marble might
have been beautiful, all this sorrow might have been expressive, had it
not been for us. See, this is our border, No. A 5, and our pedestal No.
E, and our second quality urn, along of a nice appropriate text--a
pretty combination and a cheap one. Or we can do it you better in border
A 3, and pedestal C, and a larger urn or a hangel----"

The meditative man is seized with a dismal horror, and retreats to the
gates. Even there a wooden advertisement grins broadly at him in his
discomfiture, and shouts a name athwart his route. And so down the
winding road to the valley, and then up Parliament Hill towards
Hampstead and its breeze-whipped ponds. And the mind of him is full of a
dim vision of days that have been, when sculptor and stonemason were
one, when the artist put his work in the porch for all the world to see,
when people had leisure to think how things should be done and heart to
do them well, when there was beauty in the business of life and dignity
in death. And he wonders rather hopelessly if people will ever rise up
against these damnable tradesmen who ruin our arts, make our lives
costly and dismal, and advertise, advertise even on our graves.

H.G. Wells