My fascination with cemeteries started after I first saw pictures of London’s Highgate cemetery. To me, this wild, overgrown and derelict cemetery with its crumbling headstones is comparable to a beautiful work of art. “It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.” Percy Bysshe Shelley was thinking about the cemetery in Rome when he uttered these words but they aptly summarize what I feel about the Highgate.
London’s magnificent seven
Almost 200 years ago, as London continued to grow, the church yards offered limited space for burials. This led to the building of seven ‘garden’ cemeteries around the periphery of London. Kensal green cemetery was the first to be built in 1832 followed by Norwood, Highgate, Nunhead, Brompton, Abney Park and Tower Hamlets. These were the places to be buried in, if you were rich and famous. Victorians ensured that they reserved the prime places within the grounds for their families and themselves. It was not uncommon to build grandiose monuments and mausoleums to honour the dead. Gradually the money that was spent on burials and the lavish spectacle associated with death declined. Several cemeteries became neglected, overgrown and even hazardous. Most of these cemeteries are now looked after by charitable trusts. The most famous of these magnificent seven is the Highgate Cemetery.
London’s Highgate Cemetery
Death does not seem quite so macabre when viewed in the context of London’s Highgate Cemetery –but then my visit was on a warm sunny day. It is possible that the dark of winter would have had a different impact. During my visit however, there was no scope for dark, chilling thoughts, such is the beauty of this magnificent cemetery. The ornate gravestones and the angels guarding them can only be admired. The tranquillity and the gothic wilderness of the cemetery, occupying all of 37 acres, can only be marvelled at.
The cemetery is divided into two parts – the West cemetery and the East cemetery. You can view the West cemetery by guided tour only but you can wander around freely in the East cemetery for a nominal charge. I started my tour of Highgate with the West Cemetery. I was a little sceptical of the tour as I wanted to be left on my own to take pictures however I learnt several insightful details from the tour. For instance, not only are cemeteries intriguing places to visit but they are also a good indicator of social history. Issues related to infant mortality can be apparent after looking at the heart-rending stories inscribed on some stones. There was a gravestone belonging to a family that had lost seven children. The difference between the rich and the poor is also immediately apparent by taking one look at their graves. To the rear of the cemetery, are buried the people whose sects were not recognised by the Church of England. These spartan graves make a striking contrast with some of the more ostentatious ones. The rich families often booked vaults so that they could be buried together. Each vault has holes pierced in order to allow the gases to escape and each has its own lock and key.
The stories that the guide narrated were absolutely enthralling. The poet and painter Rosetti’s wife was initially buried along with a collection of poems written by her husband. However Rosetti then decided to publish the poems. He took special permission to exhume the body of his wife to retrieve the poems. Permission was granted and the task was undertaken at night after which the poems were duly published. The exhumers assured Rosetti that his wife’s beauty remained intact and her vibrant red hair had grown in her grave. Charles Dickens’ family was initially buried in an area that was thought to be too cold and dark and they were therefore moved to a sunnier area of the cemetery. The most famous grave in the East cemetery is that of Karl Marx, with the famous words ‘Workers of all lands unite’. Karl Marx wanted a simple headstone for his grave and this was the case for several years until his supporters decided to use a more elaborate one, a decision that was frowned upon by many, who considered his headstone garish and pretentious.
Not unusual for a cemetery, some consider this to be the most haunted place in England and sightings of several unusual activities have been reported here. The most persistent amongst these is of a vampire that resides in the cemetery, the story gaining further credibility after some foxes with their blood drained were found here. The ‘Friends of the Highgate’ who look after the cemetery dismiss these claims as ludicrous as I’m sure they are.
The heritage expert Hugh Meller has called London’s cemeteries ‘a galaxy of Victorian funerary art’. This art is resplendent with symbolism. A draped urn, for instance, represents death of an older person. Angels are a religious symbol and are often thought to accompany the deceased to heaven. A hand pointed downwards depicts sudden death. A broken flower is a sign of early death. Symbol of hands clasped signifies a bond that lasts even after death. The spouse who dies first, clasps the other’s hand.
Famous residents of the West Cemetery
• Family of author Charles Dickens
• Michael Faraday – chemist and scientist
• Poet and painter Rosetti and his family
• Tom Sayers – famous boxer
Famous residents of the East Cemetery
• George Eliot – author
• Karl Marx – socialist
Visiting the Cemetery with children
Children under 8 are not permitted in the West cemetery. I visited both the East and the West cemeteries with my 9 year old daughter, who enjoyed some of the stories narrated by the guide. Just adjacent to the cemetery is London’s Waterlow Park, which is a delightful place for a picnic. My suggestion would be to visit the West cemetery first, have a picnic in the Waterlow Park and then wander around in the East cemetery. Given a choice between the East and West cemetery, the Western one is more atmospheric. Sensible footwear should be worn as some areas can get very muddy.
Anna Mahler, the sculpture and daughter of the composer Gustav Mahler, is buried in the East cemetery.
The grave of George Wombell who owned a travelling menagerie.
The grave of Britain’s prize fighter Tom Sayers, guarded by his loyal mastiff named Lion. Unfortunately Lion could not be buried with Sayers, after his death because Highgate Cemetery did not allow the burial of animals within the grounds.
The most famous grave in the East cemetery is that of Karl Marx, with the famous words ‘Workers of all lands unite’. Karl Marx wanted a simple headstone for his grave and his request was adhered to for some years until the headstone was changed to the present one.
The tombstone of the writer Douglas Adam who wrote the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy aptly showing a collection of pens and pencils.
A tribute to London’s fire brigade.
The ethical dimension
It is important to note that several of London’s cemeteries actively encourage visitors, often by holding craft events for children, talks for adults and other related events. Visitors can be seen strolling, jogging and even eating within the grounds. The revenues that are generated by the visitors enable the upkeep of the grounds. These cemeteries remain places of tranquillity where the dead lie undisturbed and the living are given the privacy and the space to mourn their dead.
Useful Facts about the Highgate Cemetery
The West cemetery can be viewed by guided tour only. Tours last for an hour. As of 2013, charges are £12 for adults and £6 for children aged 8-17. Children under 8 are not permitted. The tour price includes the entrance to the East cemetery. The East cemetery has an entrance charge of £4 for adults and children under 18 are admitted free.
Further details can be found on the official website here: http://highgatecemetery.org/
Address: Highgate Cemetery, Swain’s Lane, London N6 6PJ
“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.” – Oscar Wilde