Sad, So Very Sad: The Ink-Black Heart’s Connections to Victorian Cemetery Art and Mourning Customs

The Ink Black Heart by Robert GalbraithHappy October! Although some of us are pretty spooky all year ‘round, and the Hobby Lobby has had pumpkins out on shelves since July 5, there is just something about the beginning of October that puts us in the mood for all things Halloween, from stocking up on Frankenberry cereal to watching Linus rolling in the pumpkin for Lucy to kill it once again.

So it seems quite appropriate that we take a few moments today to look at the way in which our latest Strike installment draws upon traditional Victorian mourning customs and cemetery art in this appropriately Gothic tale of a murder that takes place in a cemetery because of a cartoon set in a cemetery. It’s a topic with plenty of motifs that are currently adorning the yards and homes of otherwise respectable people during the traditional season of spooky, so grab your walking shoes and mourning armband, and let’s take a stroll through the cemetery to uncover some Victorian traditions and motifs that wander through The Ink Black Heart.

High Gothic Highgate

If a story requires a cemetery for a setting, there’s hardly any competition for the best choice in London. Highgate, which was the appropriate backdrop for Rowling’s recent Robert Galbraith Q and A, is not London’s only uber-Gothic cemetery, but it is probably the best known of the “Magnificent Seven”: seven sites established in the 1830s to provide burial space for a burgeoning London population that had far exceeded the capacity of churchyards, the traditional resting places for the departed. The seven cemeteries were originally created on the outskirts of London, away from the hubbub of town, but now, of course, the sprawling metropolis has grown and embraced these sites, many of which provide much-appreciated greenspace and a quiet, park-like setting that would have appealed to the Victorians. While earlier generations had often produced both cemeteries and stones that were bleak and often uninviting to the living, the mid-nineteenth century saw the emergence of the cemetery as a place not merely to decently bury the dead, but as a place to visit the dead, to ponder one’s own existence, and to enjoy life a bit in a setting that was as beautiful and peaceful as it was somber.

The Victorian habit of picnicking among the tombstones might seem ghoulish to some 21st-century folks, but it nicely encapsulates that era’s fascination with cemeteries as places of recreation. Today, tourists like those in the tour group Robin follows around Highgate are welcome to visit the Magnificent Seven, all of which are popular destinations. Since all but one of the cemeteries still accepts burials, visitors are encouraged to be respectful, even if they are not, like Robin’s tour group, visiting right after a murder there in the cemetery itself. Just as the guide explains that the tour won’t go to Edie’s very recent grave because it is in one of the working cemetery’s private plots, current visitors are urged to be respectful, and, unlike nineteenth-century visitors, are discouraged from eating in the cemetery. This handy guide to the seven cemeteries even identifies which ones are the best fits for various kinds of visitors (history buffs, families, etc.) and, as the Victorians would have wanted, includes restaurant recommendations for each.

Strangely enough, one of the most appealing aspects of the Victorian cemetery is the sense of neglect. Modern, public cemeteries are places of meticulous maintenance, sometimes to the point of annoyance, as mourners are discouraged from leaving out flowers or other memorials for too long lest they interfere with the mowing. The classical Victorian cemetery, though, is like Highgate, maintained but not controlled. Plants and trees run roughshod over the landscape. The Victorians liked this sort of wild abandon in nature. They would not have found a modern memorial garden—flat stones and acres of manicured grass—to be very appealing. Instead, they would find much more to love amidst the Gothic appeal of nature creeping over the stones; the contrast of the stone monuments and the living greenery that we see on the IBH cover would be quite satisfying to the Victorian Romantic sensibility.

The Art of Death

Because the cemetery of the nineteenth century was a place to visit and to enjoy the scenery, the era also saw the dramatic rise in funerary art. Traditionally, tombstones have either been traditional or commercial. Traditional stones, also called vernacular or folk stones, according to Sticks and Stones: Three Centuries of North Carolina Gravemarkers, were created by family members, local craftspeople, or communities, often with whatever resources were available, while commercial stones were crafted by professionals for paying customers, including the wealthy, who could afford to commission elaborate gravemarkers, monuments, and mausoleums. Today, both types of funerary art continue to draw observers, including family members, history lovers, and taphophiles (people who love cemeteries and funerary art), all squinting to make out the faint letters and slowly eroding clasped hands or sculpted flowers.

The language of funerary art is a remarkably complex one, with many of the symbols and designs transmitting coded messages about those whose graves they adorn. Specific flowers, animals, or positions of symbols like hands are connected to specific facts about the departed. For example, rose buds and lambs are more common on the graves of children, while sheaves of wheat are more common on the graves of those who died in the prime of life. Angels, whether sleeping like the one on Mary Nichols’s tomb, lair of Paperwhite the Ghost, or taking up some other posture, are the most recognizable of cemetery artworks, and many cemeteries showcase their angel sculptures with tours, signage, and even souvenirs like T-shirts or magnets. Although angels were common in Renaissance art, they really became popular cemetery figures in the nineteenth century. Since full angel sculptures would have been costly and elaborate, they frequently appear on the graves of the wealthier inhabitants of cemeteries. Interestingly, when Tim Ashcroft, under the guise of The Pen of Justice, is trying to paint Drek as an anti-Semitic caricature (while also grooming his underage victims), he wrongly describes Drek’s tomb as the most costly. Rachel Ledwell, posting as Penny Peacock, counters that Lord and Lady Wyrdy-Grob’s tomb is actually more extravagant. She could have also mentioned that Paperwhite’s grave, with that full-size angel, denotes high social and economic standing.

Animals are strangely popular elements in funerary art, and Robin, when she visits, makes especial mention of a couple of creatures adorning the graves. Some animals represent some aspect of the departed’ s interests or occupation, while others are symbolic, and still others actually denote the grave of an animal, like that of famous racehorse Man O’War, who has a statue of himself over his grave at the Kentucky Horse Park. When Robin is on the tour, she notices a horse statue that does not denote the grave of a horse but of Queen Victoria’s horse slaughterer, denoting his occupation, while the grave of William Wombwell, site of notorious logjams in Drek’s Game, features a lion, a salute to his career as a menagerie-owner. 

The pelican that adorns the grave of Elizabeth, Baroness de Munck, however, has symbolic, rather than practical connotations. The distinctive artwork primarily works for the bereaved Inkhearts as a landmark of the site of both the cartoon’s genesis and Edie Ledwell’s murder. While the folklore about the pelican feeding her chicks with her blood is rooted in a mistaken observation about the way the bird’s anatomy works, it remains a powerful and popular Christian symbol for sacrificial love. Interestingly, the pelican is the second-most popular bird symbol in cemetery art, ranking just behind the extremely popular dove.

Victorians and the Art of Mourning

For the Victorians, death was both a central part of life and an experience that included its own complex practices. With the death of Prince Albert in 1861 making her a widow for the rest of her unusually long life and reign, Queen Victoria helped cement the traditions connected to mourning, from the social requirements of mourning garments to the behavior of the bereaved.  Widows were expected to wear full mourning for at least a year, and even poorer people made the effort by dying garments in order to adhere to social customs. Half-mourning and other graduated levels were practiced by individuals in conjunction with their specific relationship to the deceased and the amount of elapsed time since the death. Even fictional characters might enjoy the attention of mourners. When Arthur Conan Doyle “killed off” Sherlock Holmes (he had to bring him back, of course, perhaps the first and best instance of fan response affecting an author’s choices), men all over London sported black mourning bands tied around their arms.

Many folk  traditions associated with death, such as informing the bees (see here the report on Queen’s beekeeper recently performing this duty), stopping clocks, and covering mirrors, became codified in the Victorian era.

Ironically, in The Ink Black Heart, we see very little actual mourning. Edie Ledwell’s funeral is only recounted secondhand, with more details about the suspicious behavior of the attendees than about the departed animator. Most of her estranged “family” expresses very little in the way of mourning, and, like her boyfriend, Phillip Ormond, her uncle seems far more concerned about the financial windfall that may come via Edie’s creation. The cartoon’s fans on the cemetery tour are more fascinated than saddened by Edie’s passing, drawn to the dark glamour of the location of both her death and her inspiration for the surprisingly popular cartoon. Only Josh Blay seems to truly grieve for Edie, in part due to his survivor’s guilt.   However, the Victorian fascination with death and the symbols of mourning created and celebrated by that era are central to the Gothic sensibilities that inform the cartoon created by Ledwell and Blay, the controversial game run by their attacker, and the easily recognizable décor of October, the Addams Family, and Disney’s Haunted Mansion.

Rowling’s Cemetery Trends

While the Highgate setting and cemetery ambience are distinctively appropriate to The Ink Black Heart, this is certainly not the first time Rowling has drawn on the rich symbolic and cultural associations with cemeteries. One of the most  evocative scenes in all of Harry Potter’s story is in the “Godric’s Hollow” chapter of Deathly Hallows.

On a snowy Christmas Eve, as Harry and Hermione travel to Godric’s Hollow in search of Horcruxes, they visit the cemetery where Dumbledore’s family is buried, along with Harry’s parents. In addition to viewing those graves, Harry and Hermione see the grave of Ignotus Peverell, and, although they do not know at the time that he is Harry’s ancestor, they do pause at his very old grave. Interestingly, that stop means Harry and Hermione visit three plots in the cemetery, completing the triad that resonates with the on-going theme of threes that will be affirmed yet again in a few chapters when our duo becomes a trio again, setting our protagonists in the right direction once more.

Also interesting is the lack of funerary art in the cemetery. Of course, the Potters are celebrated with the statue in the center of town (which also includes the very-much-alive Harry with his departed parents), but there is only a brief Scripture on their stone. Scripture verses are some of the most popular inscriptions on gravestones, both before and after the Victorian era, along with Victorian poetry like that of the women poets whose quotations open our chapters in Ink Black Heart. It is not surprising that twentieth-century people with a statue in town have no elaborate grave art. The Dumbledores, though, are Victorians, so their simple memorial is intriguing. In fact, of the graves Harry visits, only Ignotus’s grave, with the Deathly Hallows symbol, has funerary art, art whose code Harry and Hermione cannot yet decode.

Considering how much death is a part of our detectives’ lives, it is surprising that more of Robin’s and Strike’s stories do not take place in cemeteries. The fact that Rowling specifically does not take them to a cemetery anytime someone dies is telling. The death that most affects Strike, that of his beloved Aunt Joan, is mourned in the unconventional way she requested, with her ashes being set out to sea, so there is no grave to visit, as thoughtful Joan did not want to burden Uncle Ted with trying to keep it maintained or make Strike and his sister Lucy feel obligated to make pilgrimages to visit a burial site. When Robin attends her future mother-in-law’s funeral in The Silkworm, the wintertime burial is glossed over quickly, with nary a mention of the Masham churchyard’s details.

In Troubled Blood, when Robin visits a cemetery in the course of the investigation, she is puzzled by its location as a possible Margot sighting, since the Leamington Spa All Saints Church has a very strange cemetery. All but two of the graves were destroyed by Luftwaffe bombing in 1940, and while Robin does get an interesting history lesson about the real James Virgo Dunn, whose stone survived, she is confused by the story of Margot being seen here in the 70s, looking at the stones. Of course, as the plot unfolds and it becomes clear that this story was, in fact, a ruse, that makes more sense.

Keep Digging!

Although our intrepid detectives seldom return to previous cases, it will be interesting to see if Highgate or other Victorian cemeteries come back into play in future books. If you’d like to visit Highgate from the comfort of your home, check out this walking tour on Youtube. If you would like to learn more about nineteenth-century American funeral and mourning customs, many of which parallel or are based on ones originating in Europe, check out this sneak preview of an upcoming event in eastern Tennessee later this month. I’ll be working with this event, so I will have some follow-up after it concludes. You may also check out Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography if you would like to learn more about this fascinating subject!




  1. Thank you for this Elizabeth – I really enjoyed it, esp. finding out that the Pelican was the second most popular bird!

    And you are absolutely right about the lack of mourning – it is one of the wider ways in which anomie pervades the novel. And the people who are truly sorry that Edie is dead – Rachel, Zoe and Josh – are all interviewed quite late. It is like hearing about Lula from Ciara – finally someone who really loved her! But because the novel is so much longer, this rebalancing takes much longer to happen, and loses some of its healing effect on the reader.

    There is, I think, one more Strike churchyard to add to this list – the memorial rose garden in Lethal White with its astonishing memento mori pillars – funerary art if not engraven gravestones! I wrote about these skulls, and their startling (if spurious) link with the Jolly Roger here:

  2. Elizabeth, thank you for this. I was struck by a couple of things. First, as Beatrice also noted, there’s a lack of mourning for Edie in IBH, and I think it’s because the genuine anguish of mourning comes not just from knowing about and admiring those who’ve died, but from “sufficiently lengthy contact” (the antidote to anomie) with them, especially the love between Edie and Josh that was evident to Robin watching an early video: “Josh and Edie were sitting so close that their arms were touching from shoulder to elbow… they smiled at each other, the unmistakeable smiles of two people who are completely smitten…The two of them were absorbed in each other now, the camera temporarily forgotten…” And Robin’s response: “Robin stared at the frozen image…Josh Blay and his beautiful, wide smile, Edie beaming as she leaned into him, amber eyes bright — then, in spite of her best efforts, she put her face in her hands, and wept.” (the very end of Part 1) Robin mourns not just Edie’s death, but also the apparent death of an engaging love affair so obvious in the video. Robin must have been remembering Edie’s repeated “please” (8 times), her anguish and desperation, in stark contrast to the Edie in the video. And Edie herself said she’d been hoping for Robin, not, as was usually the case, Strike. My point is there was a connection between Edie and Robin in that office, probably because, whether conscious of it or not, Edie was also mourning the loss of everything that makes life worth living. She kept saying “I can’t keep on like this,” and it was evident in her disheveled appearance, her inability to maintain a grip on the folder so that the papers slid all over the floor, her humorless laugh, trembling fingers, and shaking, cracking voice. The thing that gets me is the little phrase, “in spite of her best efforts” because Robin’s first inclination was to buck up and not show, even to herself, the mounting sense of loss she felt in the core of her being. I’m glad JKR put this out there for us to deal with and I’m grateful to you Elizabeth for pointing out the lack of mourning, painful but I think necessary for us to address with as much honesty as we can manage.

    Thank you for recalling Harry’s and Hermione’s visit to the cemetery in Godric’s Hollow. I had to reread that bit, beginning and ending with the kissing gate entrance, gazing at lichen-spotted granite, weathered and crumbling mossy stone and finally the headstone marking the graves of James and Lily Potter, “made of white marble, just like Dumbledore’s tomb,” bearing cryptic symbols and equally cryptic phrases. Hermione’s attempt at explaining what “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” means does not comfort Harry, even while her presence does, as she grips his hand while he lets his hot tears fall, “his heart still beating, alive because of their sacrifice and close to wishing, at this moment, he was sleeping under the snow with them.” And then suddenly he was ready to leave. Mourning is chaotic and unpredictable feelings colliding with no rhyme or reason with such heaviness that whatever air had been previously breathable becomes a weighty useless mass. Just as Hermione gave space for Harry to mourn, so do Strike and Robin when they are with Josh. I love Robin’s memory of that scene: Strike wiping Josh’s face “with precisely the undemonstrative male efficiency Blay had felt able to accept.” Knowing what service or comfort a griever is able to accept is huge and sadly rare.

    Finally I absolutely love what you said about the appeal of the “sense of neglect” in a Victorian cemetery, “maintained but not controlled,” the “wild abandon of nature.” I remember, and still practice, someone suggesting that looking for beauty could be very therapeutic for anyone suffering trauma and loss. They were not wrong. I’ve always loved gardening, and other gardeners, who I’ve learned are the most generous people I’ve ever known. The best gardens have almost no grass at all, while also not being weed-free. They burst with color and vines trying to take over, and the butterflies and bees are everywhere and it’s so beautiful and the air is sweet and breathable. The broken and battered might just find relief telling the bees that though one family member has passed, they will still be cared for, their favorite sources of pollen will still be tended, and they can buzz into other worlds with their reassuring messages.

  3. Loved this Sandy – and yes, I too was delighted that Elizabeth reminded us of the Godric’s Hollow churchyard scene – a wonderful redeeming of the churchyard in Goblet of Fire!
    Given what you say about the importance of both that scene, and gardens, for you – I think you may enjoy my piece on the Christmas Rose symbolism in that scene. I knew there was something powerful about those Christmas roses, and was delighted to find out more about them. And, suitably for IBH, (with the German folktale that lies behind the original cartoon), German folktales are central to its symbolism:

  4. Odd Sverre Hove says

    Then there is also the Graveyard with the marble stone of Tom Venster i HP4, cap 32 and 33. With Lord Voldemort taking back his body and the duell with Harry. Thank you for fascinating reading in the post above!

  5. There’s also the curious coincidence of Robin running into a secretive Pez “half-concealed in greenery” in the “garden” of Highgate Cemetery. An echo for me of the serpent in Eden, including his penis coming unbidden into Robin’s mind, with much temptation to follow.

  6. Beatrice thank you for that link! Can’t wait to check it out!

  7. Louise Freeman says

    Sandy: Your description reminds me of the Weasley garden, which Harry thought “was just what a garden should be” in contrast to the Dursley’s manicured lawn.

  8. Louise: Ha! What a happy coincidence! Thank you for reminding me!! Love the Burrow so much! I mean how sweet is it that Harry noticed that everyone liked him at the Burrow?!?

    Beatrice have I known you in some other world? Or have you been hiding in my closet?? I have at least 3 different hellebore varieties in my garden (which is not very big but I have lots of shade and that’s where they thrive) More importantly you have spoken balm into my heart. I’ve lost parents and too many friends (I’m not young except in my wild imagination) This bit is so powerful: “Florence German’s ‘Vigil of the Christmas Rose’ (1902) tells of how the devoted flower chose to fall with Eve, and leave Paradise. An angel asks the Christmas rose whether this devotion was worth it, and the flower replies that she is glad of what she has learnt, despite the suffering it has cost her: ‘for I have been close to sorrow, and to sin, and to death, and know that love is stronger than all.” 3 days ago would’ve been my mom’s 90th birthday but she died 5 years ago. Sometimes it feels like 5 days ago. We wore the same size shoes and I have a couple pairs of her shoes… And she loved orange kitties, actually any kitty, but how wonderful is it that Crookshanks knew where to find the Christrose!! My female kitty is my yard boss, very strict about unauthorized changes.

    How odd Slytherins fail to understand the power of a love potion since Merope probably used one to beget Tom Riddle Jr….

    A Christina Rossetti Christmas carol seems so fitting for IBH, especially since January (when Edie begged Robin to take her case) is closer to midwinter than December is, and fatal February even more so. And that whole scene in the office was so bleak.

    I love that “Christmas rose means ‘Relieve my anxiety.” But you should don a crown for this:

    “…his [Harry’s] failure to add the hellebore means that he fails to make a Draught of Peace, while the appearance of hellebores in Deathly Hallows will bring him peace.”

    It has such a nice ring to it I can almost hear you singing it.

  9. Thank you so much for this Sandy – I don’t think I’ve ever had a warmer response to a piece of writing.

    Lovely to hear about your Hellebore collection – and yes, the Rossetti connection feels just right for IBH – a slither of light in the novel’s bleak midwinter.

    I am so very sorry to hear about your mother. How nice that you get to walk in her shoes. Shoes are the clothing that takes on the personality of their wearer most I think.

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