The Waking the Dead project has changed my attitude towards cemeteries. Before engaging in this project, cemeteries were dead places to me; sacred, yet guarded by norms. Society demands constant respect for the dead, as if they can be disturbed by the noises, voices and actions of the living. However, throughout the project, the cemetery began to morph. It stopped being a place of self-imposed quiet and more an interactive archive, through which a better understanding of the world can emerge. With this change in apprehension came a change in behaviour. The morose reflections stopped and respect for the dead no longer meant confining them to their space and leaving it in peace. Looking at graves, so many graves, and reading the inscriptions or lack thereof, I began asking ‘who are they?’ ‘What did they do?’ ‘Does anybody still remember them?’
As a space, the thing that strikes me most about Kensal Green Cemetery is how many of the stones have been eroded. Many memorials to the dead have become illegible. Many burial spots therefore become a space that demand respect, but to an unknown figure. This is obviously not a new thing. A name doesn’t exactly mean anything unless you associate it with someone, it is as vacant as any other descriptor that doesn’t latch. Tombs to the Unknown Soldier are common in places ravaged by war, but Kensal Green Cemetery has many people who are unknown. Therefore, a project that seeks to ‘wake the dead’ - even if it had a wider scope and longer time frame - would only ever be able to scratch the surface. A project that really engaged in the social archaeology of a space like this in London would require teams of researchers.
Who do we place the camera’s lens on? Who should be geo-located and written upon? This list constantly changed. The people we focussed on were not in any way exhaustive, nor were they perhaps the best reflection of the space. The lack of women remembered in history is problematic and remains a problem within this project. We wanted more, we sought to include many more, however, many were famous for salacious behaviours or scandal. This did not chime well. The women who were paid tribute to were towering figures: Pearl Connor-Mgotsi and Kate Meyrick in particular.
We also remembered a lot of the recent history of the political and cultural giants from the African-Caribbean communities of the local area, people like Hubert ‘Baron’ Baker – who is paid respect to in the app for his political commitments or Michael Abbensetts, who is remembered for his contributions to the theatre. One person who warrants much greater attention who we were unable to do the work on is Aunt Suzy, a matriarch of the Caribbean community, who formed a credit union and networking site on Blenheim Crescent just after the first communities from the Caribbean began to settle in North Kensington. As Charlie Phillips told us, the network assisted Caribbeans as they arrived to settle across the country, providing loans when banks refused to.
The list of notable figures we didn’t cover could fill a book. What troubles me, however, is the number of people whose lives had impacts on individuals, the area and wider society but who were not celebrated in print or media. A project of this nature cannot do justice to those gone, it does however reveal a process of how to do it. Lives are very rarely chronicled. Those who are remembered through the ages are not remembered for who they are, but for who remembers them and how. Those with the powers of communication determine the narrative and who should be remembered. Digital media provides an ability to capture the words, thoughts and reflections of people who do not write their memoirs and testimonies, for whatever reason. Filmed interviews, oral history recordings or photography can gather histories that the written form excludes. As archivists begin to digitise the information of the past, there’s a very exciting future for telling the stories that history, as it stands, misses. There are much more of the dead to wake. Summoning the strength of movements, people and ideas from the past can help us contend with the issues of the present and future.
At the Octavia Foundation, we work in west and central London to support local people during times of personal difficulty or crisis.
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