Inside an ancient churchyard in London an ash tree is encircled with hundreds of overlapping gravestones, placed there by classic novelist Thomas Hardy.
The cemetery, alongside London’s St. Pancras Old Church, is considered by many to be one of England’s oldest places of Christian worship, and it is the site of a number of fascinating stories. For istance, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the future Mary Shelley planned their elopement there while visiting Mary’s mother’s grave.
Restored in the first few years of the 21st century, the graveyard served not only as a burial place for the parishioners but also for Roman Catholics from all around London. They included many French refugees, especially priests, who had fled the Revolution, one of them the spy Chevalier d’Éon. Notable people buried in the churchyard include the notorious colonial administrator Joseph Wall who was executed for cruelty in 1802, vampire writer and physician John Polidori, the composers Carl Friedrich Abel and Johann Christian Bach, the eighteenth son of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the sculptor John Flaxman. Also William Franklin, the illegitimate son of Benjamin Franklin, and last colonial Governor of New Jersey was interred here in 1814. Charles Dickens mentions it by name in his 1859 novel “A Tale of Two Cities”, making it the location of body snatching to provide corpses for dissection at medical schools, a common practice at the time.
But maybe one of its most oddities is the Hardy Tree, an ash tree surrounded by hundreds of weathered gravestones, layered practically on top of one another.
And how did they come to be arranged in this way?
In the mid-1860s, Britain’s rail system was experiencing immense growth, and London was outgrowing its existing lines. Thus, in order to accommodate the growing population of commuters, an expansion was planned,directly affecting the graveyard at St. Pancras: in order to make way for the new train line, in fact, an architecture firm was contracted to perform the sensitive task of exhuming the remains and reburying them at another site.
In the tradition of dumping rather unpleasant work on those lowest of the class, the job was promptly assigned to their young employee, Thomas Hardy, who in the following decades would publish many classic novels such as Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
After the essential duty was completed, there remained hundreds of headstones, along with the question of what to do with them.
Hardy’s solution was to place them in a circular pattern around an ash tree in the churchyard in a spot that would not be disturbed by the railway. One can only speculate as to how he arrived at this decision, but over the years the tree has absorbed many of the headstones, and life and death melding into one image of grotesque beauty, preserved for centuries…