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Well done to those who put in graveyard shifts at Highgate

PUBLISHED: 12:26 29 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:06 07 September 2010

I hope this doesn t make me sound either sad or creepy, but I ve spent a lot of time in graveyards. In my teenage years I was fascinated, in a good way, by the history of my local burial ground in Gracehill, County Antrim. The Moravians who travelled a

I hope this doesn't make me sound either sad or creepy, but I've spent a lot of time in graveyards. In my teenage years I was fascinated, in a good way, by the history of my 'local' burial ground in Gracehill, County Antrim.

The Moravians who travelled across Europe in the 1760s to found this small but perfectly-formed settlement brought with them some curious customs.

For instance, due to ancient covenants imported by these Bohemian blow-ins, Gracehill to my knowledge has never had a pub, or a bookmaker's, or even a butcher's shop - though the best ham in Ireland could be bought from Jim Gillan's village store where it was carved up in front of your eyes on a shiny new slicer.

For an Irish village to be without one of these facilities is a rarity. I can testify that for all three to be absent during your formative years leaves you feeling disadvantaged for life.

Another thing that marks the village as a place apart is that the early Moravians were so paranoid about the possibility of pre-marital sex occurring among young folk, that boys and girls attended separate schools and were then required to live and work in different buildings until marriage or death - a tradition that had disappeared when I was growing up, I'm glad to report.

But it was the eerie and ancient graveyard, adjacent to the village school, and never far from view, that excited my earliest imaginations.

The approach, akin to a scene from a Dracula movie, was from either of two gloomy entrances, arched by towering yew trees, and known historically as The Brothers' and Sisters' Walks.

A hundred yards of tangled woodland separated these paths before they converged at God's Acre - the burial ground.

Deceased women would be solemnly carried along one path, men along the other, before being taken to their final resting places within the inner gates. Even in eternity, there was a firm dividing line: women were buried to the left, men to the right, their caskets stood upright lest their inhabitants be caught sleeping when the angel Gabriel blew his horn.

They're still waiting for the big moment but no matter, this proved to be inspired thinking. Burying people upright is a fantastic space-saver and it is only relatively recently that there has been any need for expansion of the burial grounds. I'm surprised the idea hasn't spread.

To me Gracehill graveyard was the spookiest place on earth, bar none. That was until I arrived in N6 and visited its Highgate counterpart. A night walk alongside the Swains Lane boundaries is guaranteed to raise the hairs on anyone's neck. When the moon is hidden and the leaves are rustling, it's a scary experience by any standards.

There are those I know who have found daylight encounters with the octogenarian unofficial 'Keeper of the Cemetery', Jean Pateman, every bit as daunting as a midnight walk past the wrought iron gates. But this is necessarily so, I think.

It's not that long ago that many of the cemetery's pathways were impassable, while rotting trees and crumbling boundary walls were more of a danger to the living than sanctuary for the dead.

In the nick of time, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery came together to administer some much-needed TLC and prevent it from falling into terminal disrepair.

I understand the furore over the entrance hut, a story that has excited considerable interest on the pages of the Ham&High and on this website, but I also understand why it is necessary to keep some kind of order in handling the large number of visitors who arrive there day and daily, throughout the year.

Getting the right balance can't be easy. But Jean and her helpers deserve thanks for the time and effort they have invested in keeping Highgate Cemetery accessible to the living as well as the dead.

Pink hut or not, they do a truly marvellous job.

Geoff Martin


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