A Tombstone for a Long Neglected Grave

History is a peculiar thing.

On Sunday 12th August 2018 over five hundred people gathered to see the unveiling of the exact location of the grave of William Blake. They were taking part in a ceremony which seems to happen every century – although not for the reason you’d expect.

People

I’ve been doing cemetery blogs for five years and I had never seen anything like what I saw on Sunday. The Blake Society only expected roughly fifty people to turn up – and it’s a complete testament to the artistry of William Blake, that his name has endured down the years to the point that one hundred and ninety one years after his death, he can still boast a funeral with a decent turn out like the one I bore witness to.

The unveiling of a headstone for William Blake at Bunhill Fields in London
The unveiling Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

The peculiarity is, that as I took my place amongst the many, I wondered how many people were aware of the exact same thing happening seventy one years ago, when the exact location of Blake’s grave was rediscovered – not by Carol and Luis Garrido as it was recently, but by Reverend George McNeal, of Wesley’s Chapel over the road, in 1927. Even he wasn’t the first to find it – Herbert Jenkins, a nineteenth century publisher, is also one to have found Blake from the unmarked grave. Every century we seem to lose where Blake is, for one reason or another. That will, happily, no longer happen.

As I wrote previously, twelve years of hard work culminated in an unveiling of a beautiful flat tombstone carved by Cambridgeshire based Lida Cardozo, sorting out the problem of the existing headstone which gave a vague location rather than an exact one. Accompanied by Mikey Fox, as we arrived I was stunned at the sheer number of people clambering for a spot around the ‘newly discovered’ place that one of England’s greatest sons occupied.

Echoing the old school gatherings that once would have been common at the East India Docks by Will Crook or even the public street talks given by General Booth, the proceedings were kicked off by the chair of the Blake Society standing on a bench and proclaiming the gospel of Blake to the already converted.

Comedian Will Franken speaks ahead of the unveiling of a headstone for William Blake at Bunhill Fields in London
Comedian Will Franken speaks ahead of the unveiling Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

‘We say a prayer in remembrance of a prophet who transcended time, glancing backwards to receive visions of futurity.’ – Will Franken

A range of speakers gave testament to the man below. Malcolm Guite, writer and theologian, Lucy Winkett, rector of the church of St James Piccadilly where Blake was baptised in 1757 and Sniffing Glue writer and poet Stephen Micalef – who not only paid tribute to ‘the living Blake’ but the ‘Blake’s 7’ – the others who rest in the same plot. Margaret Jones, Reece Thomas, Edward Sherwood, Mary Hilton, James Greenfield, Madeline Collins and Rose Davis; each person remembered with a stone being lain atop the slab which was waiting to be unveiled. That Stephen, was nicely done.

Self confessed Blakean and lead singer of Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson, fresh from doing two back-to-back performances gave a rousing speech, as can be seen below. I met him in the pub after – he’s a thoroughly nice chap.

As the grave was unveiled, Winchester based Choir Sansara gave a beautiful performance of some music written especially for the occasion.

To be part of such an historic event; to know that this grave, the newest one in Bunhill, will forever be connected to an exhibition of mind, art and word was really quite something. It’s one of those instances in life where I can say that ‘I was there’.

No longer will we have to endure knowing that he lay in a grave near this spot. Now, we have a definitive marker and anchor to where the great man now lies.

I wonder what the 22nd century will do to honour this visionary?

You can watch the entire ceremony via the Blake Society Facebook page.

 

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