karlmarxgrave

Following the recent vandalism of Karl Marx’s grave in north London, one commentator said the attacks were ‘particularly sad’, because the grade I-listed tomb is ‘the highlight of the cemetery’.

Not to me and my family it isn’t.

For us, that would be a rather smaller grave, just a few metres away from the 1956 memorial to Marx.

Marx’s tomb has been targeted by vandals twice in just two weeks. In early February, a marble plaque was attacked with a hammer; last week, there were slogans daubed on the memorial in red paint – ‘Doctrine of HATE; ‘Architect of genocide terror + oppression’; ‘Memorial to bolchevik (sic) Holocaust’, among others.

Quite rightly, the attacks have been widely criticised in the press – but those critics seem to have missed something important.

Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore described the attacks as ‘truly shocking’, adding that the ‘idiots’ daubing the slogans didn’t know their history: Marx never held any political power, so wasn’t the ‘architect’ of anything; and he was long dead before the Bolsheviks rose to power. ‘Misspelt desecration sums up this act. You cannot vandalise an idea, but you can look stupid trying.’ The chief executive of Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust said: ‘This is no way to treat a grade I-listed monument and it is a particularly inarticulate form of political comment.’

I wouldn’t disagree with any of that.

However, there’s another reason the attacks on Marx’s tomb are so wrong and hard to forgive. That’s because for me – and many others – the significance of Highgate Cemetery isn’t just political. It’s personal. It’s not just a place that people visit to remember the past, but to survive the present. It’s not just where some go out of academic interest, but where I used to go, sometimes daily, to avoid being capsized by very raw grief.

Some of the graves at Highgate date back to 1839, but with around 70 people being buried there each year, many of them are considerably newer. Including our baby daughter’s.

esme b&wIt has been years since I used to visit there multiple times a week. But for a long period, the only way I could get through the week was by spending time at her graveside (which mainly involved trying to keep her older brother from falling over in the ever-present mud). More than two decades on, we rarely go there now, but the place still has huge emotional pull. As my older son was about to go off to university, and I was dreading his going, it felt only fitting that the two of us make a pilgrimage to see his sister, and wander around some of the other graves. Reflecting on it now, I think it was a way for me to make his looming departure more manageable: a reminder that, however daunting the prospect of an empty (or part-empty) nest might be, it was a loss I could manage. Even though he would be away, he wouldn’t be gone.

I was surprised how shaken I was seeing photos of the recent vandalism, and how irked that the subsequent criticism of it seemed to miss such an important point. It made me think about what impact such desecration would have had on me, had it happened when my grief was at its most intense. Highgate Cemetery was my haven then; the place I returned to when I was teetering, unsure whether I could or wanted to survive. Spending time there would always help me re-discover some kind of equilibrium. I am not sure I would be as truly at peace with our loss now, if I hadn’t had the sanctuary of the cemetery back then.

Whether you’re religious or not (and I’m not), out of respect for the living, a cemetery should be hallowed ground. It’s where people go to grieve. There are other places you can go with your red paint and your hammers to make your political points. The bereaved may not have anywhere else. A graveside maybe the only place they can go to feel closer to the person who died, and to feel their loss a little less, as a result.

I remember how fitting it felt to bury our daughter at Highgate Cemetery. We liked the idea of her being in such august company; not just Marx, but George Eliot, Christina Rossetti, Ralph Richardson. David and Ed Miliband’s dad, Ralph, is particularly close by, which always makes me smile, for some reason. Unlike her neighbours, our baby daughter didn’t have the chance to make her mark on the world, but she still meant the world to us – and we wanted to give her her own small place in history.

There will be many bereaved parents, spouses, siblings, children, grandparents, and friends, who feel the same way about Highgate Cemetery. They will have been as wounded as I was by the attacks. That is why the damage to Marx’s tomb deserves the strongest condemnation.

Whether you’re an illiterate paint-wielding vandal, or a highly-literate media commentator, please remember that.

 

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