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Remembering the Dead to Forget the Living

Writing by Enne Tatishcheva. Artwork by Seth Statham.

Remembering the Dead to Forget the Living

The above article briefly talks about how Highgate Cemetery in North London, which houses the graves of none other than Karl Marx and George Michael, is installing heaters for its gravestones to maintain them against harsh weather, which is worsening year by year. What does this say about the way dead bodies, particularly famous ones, are perceived and valued over other bodies, other things? Can we contrast the way dead bodies are being kept ‘alive’ (at least in legacy) when the earth they rest in is in decline - the reason for the worsening weather which, in turn, is ‘killing’ the gravestones.

Friends of the Highgate Cemetery in North London recently announced the thousands of pounds about to be put towards the restoration of the graves that have been worn down by the weather worsening due to climate change. Particularly, the organisation highlights graves of famous people, citing examples like Karl Marx and George Michael. Members of the organisation also discuss other methods of protecting the graves against harsh weather to avoid having to put thousands towards restoration work in the future—namely installing heaters in the gravestones.

This move by the Friends of the Highgate Cemetery (FHC) seems to highlight a larger obsession in our society with the prioritisation of the dead over the living. Thousands of pounds are being donated generously to the FHC for the purpose of protecting graves from the effects of climate change, but there seems to be very little attention paid to the living, who are experiencing the day-to-day effects of climate change. According to UN estimates, over 100 million people annually require humanitarian assistance due to climate catastrophes. Yet, the majority of these people lack access to resources necessary to readjust following these disasters. Many people for example attempt to apply for asylum or refugee status on the basis of climate destruction, but the majority face denial within international courts. The UN continues to refuse the adoption of a concrete definition of what constitutes a climate refugee, and the existing legal frameworks that define refugee status leave no room for those who seek said asylum. In fact, these legal frameworks used by most western countries would most likely place climate refugees in the category of economic migrants.

Unfortunately, recent European and UK migration policies have been particularly hostile to economic migrants. The implementation of approaches like Fortress Europe and the Hostile Environment Policy, which attempt to halt the flow of migration into Europe and the UK, has served to make the process of migration even more dangerous and complicated than it already was. Yet, even as the numbers of climate catastrophes in the Global South continue to climb, there seems to be very little international attention being directed towards concrete ways to help the people feeling the most direct effects of climate change. Sure, there seems to be plenty of philosophical debate surrounding the definition of a climate refugee and the legality of it, but no action is being taken. Certainly not the kind of action we are seeing to be taken to protect the graves of Northgate Cemetery—where independent sponsors are immediately willing to come forward to offer large sums of money in order to preserve the memory or the legacy of those who are no longer living.

Many migrants coming into Europe are intentionally classified as economic migrants as a way to justify the denial of proper resources and support. This also seems to be the case with climate migrants—many of whom have tried to make a case for asylum, but often being denied it on the grounds that they do not meet the definition of refugee, since they were not targeted based on a specific protected characteristic. Oftentimes, climate refugees’ reasons for migration do seem to be economic at first glance—especially because overtime climate change tends to exert a negative influence on the economy. Nevertheless, climate change does not operate in a vacuum.

It seems as if it is easier for us to honour and to preserve the legacies of those who can no longer speak for themselves; people whom we can project our ideas upon. After all, Karl Marx is no longer around to challenge what the original logic of the Communist Manifesto has turned into. The narratives and experiences of climate migrants and climate refugees are far more complex than seems to be palatable to the general public: they are complex webs of intersections of struggle and resistance. They are stories that are still being written—which is perhaps the most important time to pay attention to them. Pay attention now, while we can still act to prevent or combat the effects of the climate catastrophe, instead of acting later to keep the graves of victims in pristine condition.

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