London’s Bunhill Fields (a name derived from Bone Hill, which marked a dumping ground for rags and bones) was opened as an official burial ground in 1665, due to the onslaught of a plague epidemic that year. Corpses were spilling over at the churchyards, and a quick fix was needed. But several years later, the fact that the field was, in haste, never consecrated allowed it to become a choice burial location for the Nonconformists — citizens of London and the surrounding areas who had made the costly decision to practice their spiritual beliefs outside the Church of England. And, after Europe’s Age of Enlightenment (which began in the mid-17th century) began to influence those of faith and reason, those Nonconformists often included the nations most captivating and important thinkers and authors.
Now, as members of the digital age, we often forget that authors once held the sway of today’s rock stars. And not just that — they were sometimes just as edgy. Breaking from the Church of England, while certainly a necessary step for many great minds during the Enlightenment, also brought a level of cultural ostracism that is hard to imagine in the modern age. Three men who would become some of England’s most influential writers over those few centuries — John Bunyan, Daniel Dafoe, and William Blake — now sit under the dirt of Bunhill because of the timeless literature they created, as well as their spiritual independence as artists and citizens.
Bunyan, who wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress, was a religious thinker, but one who had found his calling in a nonconformist sect. And after multiple prison sentences accrued for preaching outside the Church of England, he ended up founding his own.
Defoe, famous for penning Robinson Crusoe, faced his own ostracism from the Church because of pamphleteering based on social and economic reform and various political activities.
Blake, who gained fame as both a poet and painter — as well as for helping to usher in the Romantic Age — was hugely religious, like Bunyan, but clashed with what he perceived as the inherently flawed nature of the organized Church.
Now, each one is immortalized on the Bone Hill, given due recognition in the only place of burial that would accept dissenters, those willing to give up the false sense of security offered by hallowed, sacrosanct grounds. (Blake’s actual resting place sits about 50 feet away from his marker, and was actually only rediscovered within the last few decades.)
Located between Bunhill Row and City Road in London’s Islington district, Bunhill Fields is picture of serenity — and not just because its only permanent residents lie six feet under. I came to visit the gravesite on a Saturday afternoon and was surprised to find it nearly empty, populated by foraging squirrels and pigeons rather than tourists. A few interested passersby had stopped for a closer look, and one or two were snapping photos, but the majority of the foot traffic consisted of locals who were only using the field as a shortcut.
But the silence of the site only adds to its charm, and its impact. The graves of Bunyan, Dafoe, and Blake stand out in the crowd, but they sit amidst nameless others, the everyday dissidents of centuries past. Each stone is riddled with cracks, many can’t even be read anymore, and a slick brush of moss covers every surface wide enough to hold it. And that’s it — besides the few pence left as homage atop Blake’s resting place, there’s really no shrine to these geniuses of prose and thought. Having left legacies so rich that they continue to influence modern day writers, critics and dreamers of all kinds, each one sits in austere grace.
I wonder what the ghosts of the authors would say if they could see us passing through, the bookish tourists who come just to pore over their graves and run our fingers over the stones. Would they thank us for taking the time to remember them, or would they tell us to go home — to stop wasting precious time gazing into the unchangeable past — and begin our own revolutions of thought?