Destinations

Glasgow's "city of the dead"

August did not bode well for a trip to the city of the dead.

The Necropolis, the great graveyard of Glasgow, should not be visited under bright blue skies and shirt-sleeve temperatures.

But never underestimate Scotland's ability to serve up a gloomy day any time of year. As I passed through the big, black, wrought-iron gate by Glasgow Cathedral and started heading toward the 50,000 graves on the hill, all was fittingly sombre. The sky was a gray blanket, the sun loitering in a hazy white spot over my shoulder.

A soft but biting northern breeze rustled the trees, whose leaves were already dying – the cold of longer nights was choking off the chlorophyll that made them green. Unlike people who wear more black as they age, leaves blast their true colours – rust and gold, brown and red – only in the last days before their winter slumber.

Such musings are exactly what the Victorians hoped for when they opened the Necropolis in 1832 atop the "great gray rock," 225 feet above the River Clyde.

"Who is not made better and wiser by occasional intercourse with the tomb," said George Blair, whose 1857 book Biographic and Descriptive Sketches of Glasgow Necropolis can still be found in local bookshops.

The entrance to the Necropolis is over the Bridge of Sighs, which takes its name from the famous bridge in Venice. Here the name is meant to evoke the quiet lament of the living as they accompany a casket to the city of the dead.

The Necropolis was not the first cemetery in Glasgow but by the early 19th century, fear of water contamination from the proximity of growing graveyards to homes, schools and churches spurred a plan for a burial ground on a hill already topped by a large statue of John Knox, the fiery Presbyterian leader.

Though it overlooked the Anglican Glasgow Cathedral and is dominated by the Knox statue, the Necropolis was a civic burial ground. Anyone – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, other faith or atheist – could be buried there as long as they could pay. Prices varied from cheapest communal plots to the 3500 tombs.

The spots around the Knox statue were considered prime post-life real estate, and purchasers could be stripped of their rights to their resting place if their survivors did not rapidly build a suitably large and well-decorated tomb.

There are few, if any, names the average tourist would recognise. The spectacular memorials celebrate the industrialists who made Glasgow into a muscular center of Victorian capitalism with all its virtues and vices. One of the main stops is of a memorial topped by a seated man deep in thought. He is Charles Tennant, who discovered bleaching powder.

A map of the graveyard is available at the church museum but I found it best to just wander the circular paths that rise and fall around the Necropolis. On this gloomy day, the sky began to spit a bit of rain and nearly everyone – including my family – made for the bridge back to the cathedral. But it quickly passed and I was alone as rays of what photographers call "God light" streaked out of the clouds, illuminating small patches of the Necropolis.

For me, the most interesting spots were the fractured markers, neatly laid beside the remaining base.

There are headstones whose writing has been stained black or scraped away by acid rain made by now-shuttered factories owned by the men and women the graves are meant to memorialise forever.

As with all old cemeteries, the number of graves of infants and children is shocking. It's a reminder that odds of survival to adulthood were much longer just 100 years ago.

Though the Victorians meant the Necropolis to be a place of sombre reflection, to modern eyes its blackened and broken monuments are almost a cartoonish example of a classic horror movie graveyard.

The Glasgow Paranormal Investigators group named the Necropolis the "most haunted" site in the city. Other ghost hunters prefer the more distant Southern Necropolis, on the other side of the Clyde, home of the supposed "white veiled lady," the ghost of a woman hit and killed by a city tram in 1933.

As I exited I noticed a little graffiti etched on the side of one of the biggest mausoleums.

"Life goes on."

Yes it does, for the moment.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: The Glasgow Necropolis is at 70 Cathedral Square, Glasgow, United Kingdom. Open 7 am to 7 pm daily. Entry is free. For more information visit glasgow.gov.uk



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