March 7, 2012

Scenes from England, Part 3: Cross Bones

Much later that evening, after I had met up with the amazing Miranda (a friend from high school, studying at Cambridge) and her friend, we took the tube under the river on a quest to find Cross Bones Cemetary. The link has a good history, but the short version is that this tiny patch of land in the middle of South London, just beyond the London Bridge, had been used from medieval times through about halfway through the 19th century, originally as a "Single Women's burial ground" - for prostitutes who weren't allowed church burials - and later as a pauper's graveyard. Since it was rediscovered and partially excavated in the 1990s, people have been tying ribbons with the names of the dead buried there, along with flowers, beads, and baubles, to the gates of the site, calling it a shrine to outcasts.

So you understand why I had to see this place.

It was under a bridge some way from the Tube station, and we weren't quite sure we had found the right street, but as soon as we turned the corner and saw the gate it was obvious. Ribbons of pink and green, some quite faded and some bright as if they'd been put on the day before (which they probably had - there'd been a vigil the previous night) fluttered on every inch of the black iron gate. Flowers bloomed from the top spikes, and plastic pearls were draped between the rails. Some of the names were historical, dug from the record or uncovered through the British Museum's forensic and archaeological work on the site, recorded in sharpie on the ribbons with whatever details existed. "17 years old, syphilis." Other names were as recent as the 2000s - not actually buried there, obviously, but outcasts in their own ways and remembered as such. There was a laminated piece of paper giving the history of the place, and a plaque that says "The Outcast Dead R.I.P."

It was breathtaking to see; to imagine all of the people who had lovingly tied up a ribbon to remember someone who everyone had forgotten centuries ago, and to take in the dozens of tiny details that made up this group monument, which represented such a small fraction of the people actually buried in the ugly little patch of land beyond.

We heard some drunk guys down the alley yelling, and had to leave quickly, but someday I hope to go back for the monthly vigil, to better pay my own respects.

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