East London Cemetery


As Irma and I enter the cemetery I see a receptacle of used plastic bottles next to several taps. There is the sound of chimes blowing in the breeze and the running water of a fountain.

I realize as we walk that the bottles and taps are there for people to water the flowers and wash the markers of the graves they come to visit. I see a woman pouring water over a headstone and then scrubbing. It reminds me that though I think of cemeteries as a place for dead people, they are really places for the living. A place to make an absence present, to give loss a material form that can be touched and tended to.

We walk around we come across another woman sitting silently in front of a large tomb with a statue of the Virgin Mary. She has parked her car alongside with the doors open and sad, slow country music is coming out. Her children run about, but she is still and her head is down. I don’t think she is praying, just overcome with sadness.

We talk to the caretaker who has worked here for seventeen years. What is it like to see people buried every day? He shrugs. His answers to most of our questions include the refrain, ‘It’s just part of life.’ At one point he adds, ‘It’s not as morbid as people think.’ He is from the area, and has seen lifelong friends buried here. He describes the cemetery as a ‘small family cemetery.’He notes the diversity of those buried here, that they come from all religions and cultures and all ages,‘from zero to one-hundred.’

There is also, of course, in those who occupy the space a temporal diversity that is perhaps unique to cemeteries as social spaces. One of Jack the Ripper’s victims is here, the caretaker tells us. The local women and children who drowned in 1898 at the Blackwall launch of HMS Albion are buried together in a mass grave. Alongside these ‘Historical’ markers, the personal historical traces of families that live/lived in this community are laid down in stone, remaining even when there is no one left to visit who knew their names and faces in life.It is like an archive of bone and cement.

The caretaker tells us that people, many people from the community, come back here. People who grew up in the area but have moved away from London or even abroad, come back to be buried here in the end.


Leave a Reply