The small key turns in the large, strong hand and, in one instant, I am transformed from one world into another one. It is like passing through the wardrobe door in Narnia: I leave a world of bright, summer heat and I enter a cool, sepulchral chamber, alone except for my guide and gatekeeper. And several thousand cremated bodies.
I have entered the Ernest George Columbarium at Golders Green Cemetery. Light streams in from an ornate rose window, illuminating a large room, the walls of which are entirely lined with tiny alcoves each containing a small casket or urn. The ashes of generations of London’s dead.
The chamber is spotless; the stone floor meticulous swept; each casket lovingly tended. My guide shows me the ancient Grecian urn in which resides the ashes of father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud and his wife Martha. Distinct from all the other urns, this one is kept behind a protective glass case.
“Because of an attempted break-in,” explains my guide.
Another famous resident is the Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. Her urn is flanked by statuettes of the dancer and a long-necked swan.
A smaller door leads to the East Columbarium.
Steps lead down to a dark basement, before a short passage reveals a towering central court of five floors. It feels rather like being inside a library, such is the hushed reverence and uniform order. Once again, stone niches cover every inch of wall space; there is scarcely one, which is unoccupied. The pointed ceiling, towering high above, is constructed of wooden boards.
“We’ve got bats living up there.”
It is somehow appropriate, since on the third floor of this columbarium is the last resting place of Irish writer Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. His is a modest casket, and I would have been hard pushed to discover it without the expert knowledge of my guide.
These columbaria are rarely visited, although the occasional pilgrim is allowed to pay their respects to a favourite tenant.
“We had one of the actresses from Buffy the Vampire Slayer stop off to visit Bram Stoker.”
One of Golders Green’s most famous sons is Marc Bolan. On the anniversary of his death each year, fans still flock to lay tributes beside his plaque and by his memorial in the West Statue Bed. However, few are afforded the privilege of seeing the small, private shrine, which exists to him in the West Columbarium. Here, along a narrow stone alleyway, is housed a collection of some of the many gifts, which fans have left over the years. There are pictures and statues; toys and candles. Looking slightly incongruous in the sombre surroundings, there are also several colourful feather boas, a recognition of Bolan’s Glam Rock credentials.
I stand for several minutes in silent contemplation before, with one last look, I close the door on this keeper of the past.
© The Mudskipper
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