The Cemetery that Changed my Life – Death’s Garden

Angel Nunhead Cemetery 1989 ©Carole Tyrrell

Below is the article that I wrote for Death’s Garden and it has just been reprinted in Death’s Garden 2. I am no longer involved with the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery and have not visited the cemetery since 2017. However, it was by visiting Nunhead that I became involved with cemeteries and churchyards and which led to my interest in symbols. There is something about the wild, Gothic splendour of large Victorian cemeteries that attracts me; the large memorials, the art and sculpture and the space they give you in which to grieve and be alone despite being in the busy metropolis. they have given me so much and I have always tried to give them something in return.

The Cemetery that Changed my Life

It was the long, hot summer of 1989 when I first visited Nunhead Cemetery.  It was their annual Open Day, and I took the opportunity to enjoy its Gothic atmosphere and admire its overgrown, slightly mysterious monuments and memorials. My father had died unexpectedly earlier that year and it had been the first death of someone really close to me.  He’d been cremated and there was no resting place for me, or anyone else, to visit and grieve.

I was already drawn to Victorian cemeteries after reading Hugh Meller’s ‘London Cemeteries’ and Nunhead is one of London’s Magnificent 7.  Lucinda Lambton once described them as ‘a jet black necklace running through London.’  Nunhead was no tidy, municipal, neatly manicured, tombstones in neat rows like teeth, cemetery.  Instead, inside the imposing gates with their bronze downturned torches, was overgrown Gothic splendour; angels under dark canopies of leaves and ivy, the ruined, roofless chapel and a myriad of fascinating monuments, mausoleums and memorials.  I felt that I wanted to be amongst these reminders of the dead and departed and mourn. I was home.

The ruined chapel at that time was closed to the public and classed as a dangerous structure. Little did I know that, 20 years late on another Open Day, I would be watching the Dulwich Ukelele Band performing inside whilst 2 visitors jived on its tower roof roughly 100 feet up. I joined the Friends on that day in 1989 and began working on the monthly FONC publications stall which accompanied the general cemetery tours.  You never knew who would come up to the stall to speak to us.  Often it would be local residents who could remember playing in the cemetery when it was abandoned and locked up by its owners in 1969.  Its railings long gone for the war effort, there was nothing to prevent anyone going in and exploring – I wouldn’t have been able to resist it.  There were always eerie tales of mausoleums being broken into, coffins lying about after having been rifled for jewellery and skeletons as well.   Eventually questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament about what was going on and, as a result, the local council bought it for £1.  But the visitors often said that, although Nunhead felt creepy, it was an amazing place it was inside. 

One man told me that he was a psychic and that he could sense all the departed spirits around him.  He added that he was reassuring them and sending them on their way elsewhere.  He seemed co I’ve often wondered since what it must be like to have that kind of ability and he seemed completely sincere. 

Sometimes visitors would ask about a particular symbol as they couldn’t understand what it was doing in a cemetery.  One asked me why a dollar sign was on a headstone, and this led me onto do research into symbols for any future questions from visitors.  It was in fact the combination of the letters IHS which means ‘Jesus Honimum Salvator’ and led me into a fascination with symbols and their meanings.

In fact, as a result, I created the Symbols tour and so began my career as a tour guide. I shadowed an experienced guide, started taking the general tours and then a specialist Symbols tour.  Originally it was just going to be about symbols, but visitors also wanted the general history of the cemetery and the reasons behind the Magnificent 7’s creation.  I lead a Symbols tour in another of the Magnificent 7 now and it’s still always a little scary when you announce yourself to the gathered group, all eyes turn to you and your mind goes completely blank.   

But visitors are always very keen.  On one very wet Sunday afternoon I kept turning round thinking that the group behind me would all have given up but, no, they kept going right to the end.

Unfortunately, although the Victorians ‘borrowed’ from classical antiquity, Arts & Crafts, Celtic and Egyptian civilisations they didn’t put them in chronological order, so we do have to often zig zag around the cemetery to see as many as possible. I always emphasise on my Symbols tours that they are an introduction to the subject and there are many more to find. Even on modern memorials there is often a symbol, a way of individualising it and in Nunhead there was a 15 year old boy’s grave ornamented with a football and snooker board and the masks of comedy and tragedy on an actor’s grave.

I soon realised the value of visual material to hand round and spent an afternoon in the British Museum researching Nunhead’s largest monument; the John Allan tomb, based on the tomb of Payava in Lycia, near Turkey which is in there and takes up an entire room.

You never know what you might find in a cemetery despite how familiar you are with it.  I was updating my tour notes in winter 2014 and whilst walking along a familiar Nunhead path I looked up to see a small face carved at the centre of a cross which I had never seen before.  In 2013, during a long winter, an unusual anchor shaped tombstone was discovered that commemorated a sailor killed in the First World War although he wasn’t buried in Nunhead. 

I only had one strange experience in the cemetery or rather outside it. One Christmas I was on my way to a FONC Christmas social at a local community centre and, as I passed by the cemetery‘s high walls. Suddenly, I heard children’s voices from inside Nunhead at a particular spot.   I couldn’t  see anyone around and the road was deserted.  The houses opposite were dark and, as it was a cold night, I didn’t think children would be out playing.  I walked on and the voices faded behind me.  Interestingly enough, the voices were near the old, now bricked up entrance to the cemetery that led to the long gone Non-Conformist chapel which was bombed during WW2.  The entrance had to be closed as local children made fun of the non-conformist burials that entered through there.

It was during the winter of 1989, whilst exploring with my posh new film camera, that I took the picture of the angel.  At the time I thought she belonged to the grave on which she’s perched.  But my lady moved around on the path and, although the years weathered, she  is still there.  I used to always go and check on her on my visits.  Unfortunately, the child angel is long gone.  It was on top of a child’s grave dedicated to Albert Anthony Dufourg who was an only child and died aged 5 years and 3 months.  For several years I used the angel as a guide to where I was in the cemetery until one day it vanished – presumably stolen. It was a poignant reminder of unrealised hopes.

I have visited cemeteries in the UK, America, and Venice.  The way in which the dead are treated is often an indication of how the living are treated.  Tears pricked my eyes at Ground Zero and Calton Hill in Edinburgh was certainly the eeriest one I’ve visited.  Then there was the supernatural experience I had in Greyfriars Kirk but that’s another story.  But Nunhead always felt like home. There are no famous people, no royal connections but, instead, a place in which to wander, to reflect, admire the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the hill as butterflies flutter around you on a warm summer’s day.

But in all the cemeteries that I have visited I have never found the answer to the question of why, when angels are actually male, are the angels in cemeteries reflective young girls?

©Carole Tyrrell text and photograph


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