191 years after his death, a new gravestone was unveiled on the spot where William Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields. At an event promoted by the Blake Society as an apocalypse (or revelation of Blake’s final resting place), crowds far larger than those expected by the organisers gathered to hear Blake enthusiasts offer a celebration of his life and work and to pay their respects to the memory of one of London’s most famous sons.
Blake had been buried at Bunhill Fields after his death on 12 August, 1827 in an unmarked grave, one of eight bodies to occupy the plot, with three corpses below him and another four above him. A gravestone was placed 20 metres away marking that the remains of William and Catherine lay “nearby”. It was Carol and Luis Garrido who discovered the precise location of Blake’s grave in 2006, using records of co-ordinates to find the spot and leading the Blake Society to begin an appeal to gather the funds for another, more accurate marker. The gravestone, carved by Lida Cardozo, was then unveiled on the anniversary of Blake’s death.
The ceremony itself began at 3.00 pm, with a crowd that reports were estimating at between 400 and 800 people and certainly a much larger number than the Blake Society had estimated. Blake Society trustee, Gareth Sturdy, told the BBC that “more and more people are beginning to realise how central Blake is to the national culture”, and certainly the celebrations on Sunday demonstrated the great affection in which Blake is held.
Among those who spoke at the event were the poet, singer-songwriter, priest, and academic Malcolm Guite, who argued forcefully for the church to recognise Blake as a prophet who spoke to the nation’s deepest spiritual concerns, the poet and convener of the William Blake Congregation (and former contributor to Sniffin’ Glue) Stephen Micalef, Lucy Winkett, the rector of St James in Piccadilly, the church where Blake was baptised, and comedian Will Franken, who gave a rousing speech intended to shake the attentive crowd from their slumbers in true Blakean style. The star turn, however, was provided by Bruce Dickinson, who demonstrated that his love of Blake ran much deeper than his 1998 album The Chemical Wedding, offering a vision of how the spirit of the Romantic had touched and transformed his own music. Like most speakers there, when standing before the mortal (or, as Blake would have it, vegetable) remains of the artist, Dickinson refused to accept that he was anything other than very much alive, declaring him “one of the greatest living English poets”. For anyone else, this would have been a mistake, but not for the man who once wrote of himself: “William Blake, one who is very much delighted with being in good Company. Born 28 Nov’ 1757 in London and has died several times since.” Philip Pullman, who had also intended to speak to the assembly, had unfortunately been taken ill the previous night in Edinburgh.
Musical accompaniment was provided by the band Blake, who sang their namesake’s most famous hymn, “Jerusalem”, while a new composition came from Chris Williams: drawing its inspiration from the lines carved on the gravestone – “I give you the end of a golden string; Only wind it into a ball, It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate, Built in Jerusalem’s wall” – the very beautiful piece of music was sung by Sansara, although Williams himself was not able to be there due to visa difficulties.
The end of the ceremony included people laying flowers beside the new stone, along with a further opportunity to pay respects through the placing of 191 candles to represent one of each of the years since Blake’s death. While other inhabitants such as Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan have been commemorated much more visibly at Bunhill than Blake, it is more than fitting that, as Gareth Sturdy has also remarked, his final resting place is now marked in a spot of green grass where children will be able to play in the summer.