In his practice Andrew Luk investigates how civilisation regards itself in relation to nature. It was by chance, several years ago, that he came across Abney Park cemetery. Drawn to it as a site of otherness within the city, over the course of his two-month residency at Delfina Foundation he delved in to the burial ground’s historical significance and present circumstances, and considered how such a site might even be approached.
In this text Andrew shares some of his early findings, which will inform a future project/s – whether in substance, ideas or methodology.
At the north end of Stoke Newington – a district within the East London Borough of Hackney – Manor Road, Bouverie Road, Church Street and the High Street frame the boundaries of Abney Park Cemetery in an awkward shape, typical of the layers upon layers of organic urban growth. Behind the houses lining these streets, the picturesque trees and brick walls of Abney Park Cemetery create a circumambulatory shroud behind which the cemetery is hidden in plain sight: even from above, tree cover conceals its existence.
The cemetery’s main entrance on Stoke Newington High Street signifies a temporal shift. Its Egyptian Revivalist design complete with hieroglyphics proclaims it the “Abode of the Mortal Part of Man”, a deliberate departure from the Christian gothic style which, along with a non-denominational chapel in the centre of the cemetery, suggest that this was a place apart for its time.
Opened in 1840, Abney Park Cemetery is one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’, an informal name given to the private cemeteries established to alleviate the overcrowding of London’s burial grounds caused by its rapid population growth. Prior to this development, churchyards were generally the exclusive place of burial, responsible for interring their own local congregations. However, once the city’s populations exploded, the sheer number of dead waiting to be buried overwhelmed churchyards and city graveyards. Firsthand accounts from the time describe mounds of putrid rotting carcasses, lacking even enough dirt to fully cover them. These small churchyards also failed to accommodate the increasing diversity of beliefs and backgrounds of the growing urban population. Abney Park and the Magnificent Seven represent a historical bio-political power shift from church to state, and consequently the entry of new management styles espoused by private business, which brought innovative landscape design and horticultural fashions that reflected social views that were considered progressive for their day. The promise of a inclusive (non-denominational) garden cemetery organised by individual plots (exclusivity) on the perimeter of the city was the impetus for a civil society of the mortal parts of man.
Upon its founding, Abney Park Cemetery also became the largest arboretum in Europe, boasting over 2,500 varieties of plants from around the world. The 1,000 varieties of roses planted in the garden were depicted in the ornate stained glass panels of the Gothic chapel. This non-denominational chapel featured a large doorway which allowed a horse-drawn carriage carrying a coffin to come and go, but the chapel itself was too small for worship. Neither the stained glass nor the roses remain there today, but the chapel prevails, as do some of the original trees. The outer edge of the cemetery was planted with trees arranged in alphabetical order, further indicating its radical and experimental nature.
Architecture and statuary combined with the temporal dynamism of ecology produced a unique place. A place which provided the time and space needed to honour and mourn the loss of a loved one; allowing the experience of grief and anguish, and the performance of cultural rituals in a calibrated setting without thoughts of decay or ruin. Garden cemeteries such as Abney Park became destinations for Victorian families to spend the day while visiting a grave, suggesting a continuity of presence as a means of perpetually renewing the relationship between the living and dead. However, in part due to the lack of new plots in a finite space, the company that managed the cemetery went bankrupt in the 1970s and the cemetery was passed to the London Borough of Hackney. By 1989, this too was untenable and neglect led to wilderness succession.
High among a functioning cemetery’s responsibilities is to providing a site to enact grief, continuity, or remembrance for the living families of the dead. However, since Abney Park Cemetery was already near full capacity long before its last plot was sold in the 1970s, and there have been very few burials since, this function is fast becoming obsolete as friends and family members of the interred are themselves passing on. How then, after so many decades elapsed, can one approach such a formerly radical cemetery, one full of utopian promise that soothed confrontations with mortality?
One interpretation is to approach it as an archive of past persons hidden in a miniature city of stone. A city of the dead, with solid blocks of stone endowed with the faintest agency of representation. The gravestones and statuary are largely intact, although countless have tipped over, broken, or have been altogether swallowed up by foliage. From the inscriptions, choice of stone, size of plot, detail of statuary, symbolism and carved insignias, one can glean clues about each interred person’s life. Funeral architecture acts a signpost for a permanent home, invoking solemn feelings and imagery by which to remember the deceased. Deliberately vague, they seek to answer the question of existence without comprehensive finality: something to help anchor the memory of a life to. What then is a gravestone to a person who has no memory or connection to the deceased?
The cemetery can also be approached as an ecological sanctuary. Whereas manufactured stone monuments convey permanence, plants demonstrate the material fluidity of place. Nothing stands still, it just moves more slowly. Many of the lichen-covered gravestones lean forward as if surrendering to fatigue, a phenomenon caused by coffins and their contents having rotted away long ago leaving behind an empty chamber for the earth to sink back into. The lead-lined coffins and arsenic embalmed corpses of Victorian funerary practices both enrich and poison the earth of Abney Park Cemetery, feeding and emboldening the plant life. Warning placards let visitors know that mushrooms in the area should not be picked or eaten, implicitly suggesting that this is not a human-centric space, as the cemetery is intended for the assemblages it protects: non-humans and memories. Wrought iron chains rusting to dust have been replaced by thick tangles of ivy too dense to walk through. Large chunks of deadwood poke out from the impenetrable woodland, sustaining invertebrates and fungi which in turn sustain the birds and small mammals. The ambitious manicured and motionless arboretum has evolved into a chaotic ecological sanctuary bubbling with temporal flux.
Heterotopias are defined as spaces of representation and of difference, celebrating the disruption of space and time. Abney Park Cemetery displays multi-functional spatial qualities within a single site, as a space of otherness embracing organisational requirements (order vs. chaos) and cultivation (culture vs. nature), as well as different timelines or temporal markers; namely time as understood by, or in relation to, cultivating and maintaining a graveyard, veteran trees, architecture, human mortality, individual animals, memory, ecological cycles, etc.). Juxtapositions formed of incompatible functionalities arise as though strained from the soil.
The heterotopic juxtapositions hold not only hidden knots of ideologies, but in this case also carry the means to subsistence. Currently the charity that oversees the cemetery performs a combination of roles that embrace its heterotopic tendencies. The 20 grade II historical listings on the site, consisting of monuments, memorials and architecture (ordered, cultural), are regularly maintained. As a nature reserve the cemetery contains a thriving deadwood ecosystem with several species of rare insects, fungi, animals as well as some original trees (chaotic, natural). Both versions of the cemetery have outward-facing engagement programs through online videos, in-person tours, books and other materials aimed at instilling types of value in the minds of the public. The entanglements of heritage and wilderness conservation is rare, but by treating and maintaining the cemetery as a site of distinction, embracing the idealistically designed cemetery swallowed up by nature, redesigned into a heritage site/deadwood ecological sanctuary hybrid used for education, workshops, engagement and online content creation, generates cultural value in the minds of visitors, allowing the cemetery to lock in its autonomy, adding again to its distinction, protecting it as a repository of natural and cultural significance. As a narrative this both addresses the difficulty of retaining Abney Park Cemetery’s autonomy, but also reveals the type of creative flexibility required to generate enough value under late-stage capitalism to provide it’s protection. It has been remarked that the historically-laced, ecologically-tainted, corpse-poisoned land Abney Park is on would have great real estate value. But, perhaps the shroud of leafy trees and red brickwork behind which the cemetery is hidden in plain sight provides it a form of camouflage.
Aside from the ambitious outreach programs, Abney Park Cemetery is mostly enjoyed as a site of leisure, frequented by people on walks, meeting friends or taking a lunch break. In a way it has come full circle from the Victorian family day-trip destination. For most people today, the cemetery’s combination of culture, history and nature is a restorative environment in the 21st century. The distinct aura of the reverence for the dead differentiates it from other green spaces in the city, fostering reflection and contemplation. Here, time passes slower.