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Glasgow’s City of the Dead Is Full of Secrets

The old necropolis lures design buffs, would-be code breakers, and history sleuths.

A scent vaguely reminiscent of baking bread and vegetable soup wafts over the hillside through the green expanse of gravestones at the Glasgow Necropolis, a 37-acre cemetery designed in the image of Père Lachaise in Paris, honoring notable Glaswegians of yesteryear. Looking out from the peak, Glasgow’s magnificent cathedral is visible in one direction, city sprawl in the other — an accidental tribute to the industrial history of the Scottish metropolis. And in the forefront, a brewery. Aha! That explains the smell.


A walk through the gravestones may make you thirsty for a real ale, but this particular graveyard, opened in 1833, won’t give you creeps, even in the misty afternoon fog. Nor does it feel as touristy as the Parisian cemetery, with aging hippies on their quest for a photo at Jim Morrison’s grave. Instead, the Necropolis is a place for learning and storytelling, each grave revealing a tribute to the people of Glasgow and invoking tales that set the oft-overlooked city apart from its favored sister to the east, Edinburgh.

The cemetery is more park than graveyard, and always has been. The entrance is over the Bridge of Sighs, which was built in the 19th century over what was once the Molendinar Burn (the name given to the settlement that over time became Glasgow). A city parks map guides visitors to the top.

Searching for Mackintosh

Necropolis

Most tourists are on the lookout for the Art Nouveau-style Celtic cross designed by Glasgow’s favored son, architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It stands atop the grave of Alexander McCall, the city’s chief constable in the mid-1800s, and is believed to be the artist’s first solo commission. It would stand out, you’d think, given Mackintosh’s distinct style — save for the fact that there are hundreds of Celtic crosses at Glasgow Necropolis. According to documents from the University of Glasgow’s Mackintosh survey, the cross is "indistinguishable from numerous others to be found in Victorian cemeteries."

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Cracking the Code

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The park has a somewhat secretive past. After Dan Brown’s hit novel The Da Vinci Code became an international bestseller in 2003, would-be code breakers and history sleuths worldwide took a closer look at mysterious religious sites all over Europe. The Glasgow Necropolis slips right in with the best Rome has to offer: It’s well known that Freemasons were among the key planners and architects of the site. Their symbols appear throughout the graveyard, including the Royal Arch and the plotting of land itself, moving visitors from west to east.

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Gone Too Soon

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The fog at the top of the Necropolis creeps in, making each stone a private memory between the ground and the skyline. The scene becomes particularly overwhelming at the site of gravestones of children buried with their parents. There are tombs built for families who lost infants, toddlers, and young adults. To see the dates and do the math to determine the age of the deceased — and to note the number of mothers who died in childbirth — is a stark reminder of how medical advances have prolonged human life.

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The Angels

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There is one angel who looks out over the cityscape at the edge of the top level of the Necropolis, the words engraved on her base a prescient and on-the-nose reminder of our place in the world: "We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump." She is not alone. There are angels with broken wings and faded golden halos, and cherubs gracing large tombs and topping small stones, all keeping steady watch over their plots.

A Cemetery for All

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Upon seeing the large tombs dedicated to the wealthy merchants and architects and shipbuilders of the city, one would think the Necropolis is a place of rest for only the most well-to-do Glasgow residents. But the site has 50,000 graves and a place for all denominations, including a Jewish section, and classes.

The large monument to Scottish Reformation leader John Knox, the first grave at the site, oversees the stately area. Nearby is an intricate circular tomb, a more modern-looking octagonal grave, and others with unique Victorian designs. Down the green path and through the aisles of tombs on the lower level are more modest gravestones, markers of everyday people of the city — ministers, poets, firemen, and war veterans among them.

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Photographs: Guy Veale

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