My favorite touristy thing in London: Westminster Abbey
I love cemeteries. Not modern cemeteries so much — they feel too sad, too fresh and recent. I’m happy in old, old cemeteries with elaborate sculptures and tombs and overgrown plantings. Places like Père Lachaise, Montmartre Cemetery, and the Catacombs in Paris, the Unitarian Church’s cemetery in Charleston, Lafayette Cemetery #1 in New Orleans, or any little cemetery in downtown Boston…these places can combine the history of a museum, the greenery of a botanical garden, and the peacefulness of a stroll in the park.
In the US, we’ve got plenty of space and only a few hundred years of European-style burials to contend with, but Paris and London both faced serious issues with the number of dead people piling up (literally) in their cities by the 18th century. By the late 1700s, people had been living and dying in the same place for a long, long time. Things got pretty bad…so bad that I can’t bring myself to give you the details before breakfast. Suffice it to say: in the late 1700s in Paris, all church cemeteries were condemned and all burials were transferred to tunnels under the city, known as the Catacombs, and to larger pieces of land in what were then the suburbs of Paris. London also moved their churchyard cemeteries to larger, suburban cemeteries, but then they sort of forgot about them and most became overgrown and underloved.
Forgotten, that is, except for one London cemetery, the biggest and baddest of them all, which isn’t really a cemetery but a church. Westminster Abbey is a working church, providing services like communion and marriage of royal family members, but it’s also the final resting place of many notable English people, including just about all of the (recoverable) former Kings and Queens.
Westminster Abbey does not allow photography inside the Abbey itself, but you’re free to roam around all the nooks and crannies of the individual chapels, rooms, and the gardens (gardens are only open between Tuesday and Thursday) for as long as you want. It’s an overwhelming place. Not only is the building itself amazing, but the people interned there are a humbling and impressive bunch. I felt incredibly moved. When are you ever going to be in a room with Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Robert Browning, Dr. Livingstone, Handel, Chaucer, Tennyson, and a whole range of Richards, Henrys, Elizabeths, and Edwards? Where else could you be surrounded by all the firsts of a country, including the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony? Never mind the fact that they’re dead!