Undead in Hendon

In Others
August 1, 2009

“I want you to come with me, and to come in secret, to the churchyard at Kingstead.”

Arthur’s face fell as he said in an amazed sort of way,

“Where poor Lucy is buried?”

The Professor bowed.

Arthur went on, “And when there?”

“To enter the tomb!”

Arthur stood up.  “Professor, are you in earnest, or is it some monstrous joke?  Pardon me, I see that you are in earnest.”  He sat down again, but I could see that he sat firmly and proudly, as one who is on his dignity.  There was silence until he asked again, “And when in the tomb?”

“To open the coffin.”

Dracula – Bram Stoker

Since I wrote a novel about Hendon, I’ve been increasingly intrigued by the history of this rather anonymous London suburb. So, imagine my delight when I discovered that Hendon Cemetery is supposed to have inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula. In particular, ‘Kingstead’ cemetery, where Lucy Westenra is buried is supposed to be based on Hendon Cemetery. I thought a visit to the Cemetery would be a good way to inaugurate my challenge, so I popped in today on the way to some friends for lunch.

Cemeteries have an aura, there’s no denying it. You can walk in as light-hearted as you like, but when you’ve walked past a child’s grave, or one of a 19-year-old man killed in the Second World War it’s impossible not to start reflecting on life’s One Big Fact. It’s funny; our generation (perhaps every generation?) approaches life as if it’s a game, with loads of rules for how to win. Accumulate stuff! Visit places! Fall in love! Have babies! Become famous! We forget, I think, that the games all end the same way. A walk around a cemetery is a salutary reminder. ‘Remember you will die’ applies to me too.

I walked around the cemetery, trying to spot the ‘Rundell tomb’, where in 1828 someone apparently broke in and severed the head of one of the bodies, thus inspiring Stoker. I was fascinated by the many different nationalities who have ended up in Hendon: a Russian man who died in 1928 at 36 years old (what was he doing here?), the founders of the Chinese Church in London, many Italian and Polish people, and some Vietnamese people. Hendon has been multicultural for at least 40 years, judging by the graves.

I was also interested by the ‘picture’ gravestones – which have photographs of the dead person embedded into them. I’m more used to Jewish cemeteries, in which because of the Jewish idea that “we’re all equal in death”, there’s a lot more uniformity. I wonder how people choose those pictures: is there a temptation to choose one of the person in the prime of their life, rather than nearer the end? Does the person choose their own picture beforehand? And why do I find these pictures a bit weird even though I find the carved faces of noblemen on medieval tombs picturesque? Perhaps it’s about the difference between painting/sculpture – which can try to reflect a person’s ‘spirit’ and photography, which usually only captures a moment, a weird look, a fixed smile. Or perhaps it’s just snobbery on my part: photography is sculpture for the masses.

After a fruitless 45-minute wander, I decided to give up my search for the Rundell tomb. Now, with a bit more pointed googling I discover I was looking in the wrong cemetery. The right cemetery is St Mary’s Hendon, not a five-minute walk from my flat. An expedition for another day. Good to know that Lucy’s restless spirit has been laid to rest for many years now, though.

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