Recently I attempted to go headstone hunting or grave hunting in Abney Park Cemetery after noticing there were many requests for people to find the grave sites – from descendants who no longer lived in the UK. There were so many plaintive requests for photos of lost memorials. I wondered why no one had helped these people with their requests for photos, and I thought I’d try to do this over the weekend, for just an hour or two. You know, just head on to Abney one afternoon and FIND ALL THE GRAVES. Fulfill a photo request. Or two. Or three…. Or a hundred and eighty five?
At first when I scrolled down the list I thought it would be a piece of cake to help search for the graves. There didn’t seem so many when you’re just speed scrolling through the names. But when I tried to copy out the data, I realised there were actually a whopping total of 185 requests. This was more than I had expected in terms of a number. 185 individuals had clicked on this site wanting to find a specific grave for a specific person in this cemetery. And these were just the people who knew where the memorials were located in the cemetery. I mean, from a brief glance, I had thought there were just a few dozen requests online, but not 185 requests. Perhaps I was out of my depth trying to attempt to fulfill all 185 requests. It sounded like a tall order to photograph, let alone locate 185 graves in an afternoon. But every name was a person, and how could I miss a single name on the list?
As I copied out the names, I began to develop the illusion that this was not a world so far away. I knew the area and the roads of Stoke Newington like the back of my hand, I had already read a lot about the local history, I could imagine the roads and places and houses and the work and lives that went on inside them; certain surnames resurfaced many times like Wood, Woods, Watts, Loomes, Levesque,… as I copied the names out I began to imagine I could understand how this cemetery worked, but that was definitely just some weird kind of survivorship bias…
For some reason I erroneously had the number “40,000” in my head – I thought there were 40,000 people buried in Abney Park’s 12.53 hectares (31.0 acres). I realise now that I thought this because I must have seen this signboard stating that there were 40,000 headstones still remaining. But the real number of burials in Abney Park is actually well over 200,000 at this point! I was surprised by this density. For my own reference I went to google the size of one of Singapore’s oldest cemeteries, Bukit Brown, which occupies about 85 hectares (211 acres) and is said to house “over 100,000 graves”. The British Isle Genealogy website keeps an online index of the 194,815 burials that took place in Abney Park from 1840 to 1978. 185 out of the 194,815 graves tabulated in 1978 in a time before I was even born – that makes a mere 0.09496188691 % of the graves there at Abney. Alas, ’twere nothing but an illusion of understanding the sheer volume of graves at Abney….
After tediously copying out and cross referencing the lost graves and memorials onto a section map I made my way down to Abney. By the way, if anyone wants a copy of my list, here is the google doc: Abney Park Cemetery Photo Requests
I was instantly overwhelmed and completely thwarted by thick overgrowth. It was not even possible to go beyond the second or third row of graves in a section unless I wanted to step on countless gravestones which had fallen over. Now I always knew it was thick in there, but until you attempt to match a name to a grave in a specific section, you may not fully appreciate how many graves there are!
There were Commonwealth war graves at this cemetery – instantly recognisable from afar – now that I’ve visited many Commonwealth war memorials…
Because the war graves were standardised through the war graves commission, I always knew what I was looking at when I saw a war grave.
But graves come in all shapes…
in all formats…
in all sizes….
Some are very wordy…
Some get straight to the point…
Many are standing (or falling over) in all sorts of different angles…
I have a newfound respect for gravehunting as it is extremely difficult. In fact, I think it is entirely impossible. George also said I shouldn’t just go around the cemetery “randomly” shrieking out names as I was looking for them.
“SECTION D06!!! HENRY VALE! WHERE ARE YOU?”
“Could Henry Vale be in there?”
“Or is Henry Vale in there?”
“Ada Wincup? Is that your headstone?”
“Mary Wood? Is your stone somewhere in there?”
When people post a request for a photo of a grave, it is probably because:
– the grave stone no longer exists
– the grave stone cannot be found within the cemetery due to overgrowth
– the grave stone is broken or in pieces (sad but common sight)
– the text on the grave stone was too worn to read
– the location provided was wrong
– the surname provided was wrong because the female had her surname changed from her maiden name to married name
– the person requesting for the photo was simply hoping for a complete miracle
Alas I cannot work miracles, and I have much respect for the countless findagrave contributors and your tireless searching for lost memorials! I could not even find a single headstone out of my list of 185! AH! I HAVE FAILED!!! But at least I tried…
And speaking of the impossibility of finding graves in Abney, its worth noting that Abney Park Cemetery is no longer a ‘working’ cemetery accepting new burials, so you can’t find a grave plot there anymore even if you were wanting to have yourself buried there. In case you were wondering what is the cost of being buried at one of London’s ‘finest’ such as Highgate Cemetery, it was mentioned in a Guardian article that the cost of being buried at Highgate is currently £18,325. £16,475 for the plot and £1,850 for digging. So… yep, unless you are rolling in the money, it would truly be pretty impossible to find your grave here…