Greyfriars: The city of the dead

It is the cemetery where fans of Harry Potter leave notes at the grave of Thomas Riddell, thought to be the inspiration behind Voldemort. It is said that JK Rowling got the inspiration for young Voldemort’s name from the grave of Thomas Riddell when she was wandering around Edinburgh’s Greyfriars cemetery. That is only one of the reasons that make this unique cemetery interesting.

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While London’s Highgate cemetery is high on the beauty quotient and is utterly wild and beautiful, Greyfriar’s gothic fragments gives the cemetery an allure that more than matches Highgate’s beauty. While Highgate is all about ornate gravestones and beautiful angels guarding the tombs, Greyfriars unabashedly displays the macabre symbols of death like skulls and dancing skeletons on its darkened gravestones. This may have had something to do with the age of the cemetery when the attitudes towards death differed. The earliest gravestone at the cemetery dates to as far back as the 1580s and the cemetery is actually much older than that. In fact the bodies of the dead were stacked, often on top of each other, to such an extent that the mound of the cemetery, formed due to thousands of decomposing bodies, is at a level much higher than the street outside.

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Grave robbing was a common occurrence during the olden times. Grave thieves often stole the bodies and sold them to medical schools for their anatomy dissections. It was extremely difficult to find bodies for dissection and the Government normally sanctioned the dead bodies of criminals to the medical schools. However the schools were always in need of more and grave robbing became rampant. To prevent this from happening, bodies were often locked up in grave safes by the family of the dead. A locked iron cage was built around the grave to prevent it from being dug up in the hope of preserving the sanctity of the grave. However it was only the rich, who could afford such grave locks. The poor often took to guarding the graves at night but grave robbing still continued. These grave locks can still be seen at this cemetery something that was not present at the Highgate in London.

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Greyfriars is believed to be one of the world’s most haunted cemeteries. So much so that the local authorities were forced to lock up two sections of the cemetery because of complaints from visitors about frequent paranormal occurrences. One is the former open air prison where more than a 1000 members of the Covenant religious movement were imprisoned in the sixteenth century. The second is the mausoleum, known as the black mausoleum, of George Mackenzie, who was responsible for the persecution and torture of these locked prisoners. The cemetery is believed to be haunted by what is known as the Mackenzie Poltergeist. The authorities have permitted the local author Jan-Andrew Henderson to lead tours of both sites. The locked up prison is opened up especially for this tour which takes place at night. Tempting though the tour sounded (who wouldn’t like to visit a locked up haunted prison in a cemetery); time and other constraints prevented me from going, which may not have been an entirely bad thing. I have heard that these tours have actors who suddenly jump at the visitors thus ensuring the scare factor (in case the real poltergeist fails to turn up). Somehow these elements of artifice within the tour are not entirely my cup of tea and I was more than content to amble around on my own.

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The Mackenzie Poltergeist is one of the best documented supernatural cases of all times and a placard outside the prison states so. The ghost is believed to cause unexplained scratches, burns and bruises in the victims and there have been reports of some victims even being knocked out. There are 80 such pages of eye witness accounts detailing the attacks. To make matters even more interesting, a number of deaths have taken place within the cemetery itself.

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