I know that cemeteries seem terribly morbid, so it sounds like a terrible day out, but I find something serenely beautiful about them… some of them. I am not talking about the cemetery that you see as you drive by your local church, these are fairly run of the mill, and while nice for families to visit their departed love ones, they are really only there to be a final resting place. I am talking about mass victorian cemeteries, where they were built to appease people’s fears and also turn a profit as these have some amazing architecture and sculpture within them.
I am incredibly lucky that I live very close to the magnificient 7 cemeteries around London. Which means I have made it my mission to visit them. The photography in this article has been taken by me, so that I can give you a glimps of what I find so fascinating.
To really understand why these cemeteries were built, you need to cast your mind back to a time when London was a cramped and stinking place (honestly it has got better), the streets were dirty and if you wanted to bury your loved ones they were in small parish graveyards… which frankly were overcrowded and subjected to grave robbers. The people of London were terrified that they would bury uncle Frank on Friday only to find that he had been whipped away to become a medical cadaver or an artists play thing by the Sunday. Not only were body snatchers an issue, but the population of London had doubled at the turn of the century, which meant that more deaths were happening, which meant that the overcrowded graveyards pushed decaying “things” (you know what I am talking about) into the water supply which caused epidemics, but also encouraged rats to inflitrate the graveyards and defile bodies… this is not something anyone wants to see. Undertakers would dress as the clergy and perform illigal burials in back streets – it was decending in to havoc.
With that rather glum picture in mind, private companies saw an oppotunity to create beautiful spaces which were in visiable areas that people could be buried in, with a peace of mind that their bodies wouldn’t be defiled or stolen. Between 1833 and 1841 the 7 were created, with an additional west section to Highgate added in 1854.
These cemeteries were beautifully constructed each with its own features to entice people to spend their eternities laid in the peaceful settings.
Highgate east cemetery is build on a hill, which is 375 feet above sea level, and before all of the trees and foliage grew, you could see right across London from its summit. This meant is was a prime spot to be buried in, because people could also see the hill from most places in London, giving the grave robbers no coverage.
Besides the hill being a fantastic pro to being buried in Highgate, there are some architectural highlights within it. Starting with West Cemetery (although you can only see this through guided tour – but I highly recommend it as it is so intriguing) as the East was not added until 1854.
Egyptian Avenue was created to feed the fascination of Egyptomania which swept Europe in the 19th century. This is a tunnel of vaults which are adorned with Egyptian pillars (you can see the lotus flowers at the top and bottom of the pillar). There are 16 vaults within the avenue, each has shelving for 12 coffins. These were bought by families, which acted like descrete mousoleums. Originally there wasn’t all the greenery growning over the top of this structure, rather a roof was over the top of it. Later the roof was removed as visiting family members said that the avenue was too dark. Today, there are some very alive residents within these vaults, a rare type of orb weaver spider, sadly you won’t see them as they don’t like daylight. You may also be thinking – this looks very familiar – where have I seen this before… well if you have watched the film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – The Crimes of Grindelwald” you will recognise this, although they would have you believe it is in Paris.
Just beyond the avenue, is the Circle of Lebanon – which, up until the week before I visited had a huge cedar tree in the centre of it, sadly the tree was deemed dead and rotten and had to be cut down just before I visited as it was in danger of falling, which could have caused a lot of damage and honestly no one needs to be clearing dead tree and skeletons.
The Circle of Lebanon is a circle of 20 vaults in the centre with another 16 vaults around the outside.
I would have loved to have shown you the tree here, but this is all that was left. Although within the circle you can find the vault of Radclyffe Hall, who was a prolific writer – although not a hugely nice person – but she did liberate the LGBT community at the time, making her burial site something that people travel to see.
Passed here is the tomb of George Wombwell – a well known menagerist. He has his favouite lion “Nero” sleeping on top of him. George was well known with many stories told of his traveling menagerie and I recommend you having a read about him as he started with 2 pythons and ended up with a whole zoo.
Nero the Lion on George Wombwell’s Tomb
Next is the catacombs – this is an intriguing and beautiful place. You can see some vaults within the catacombs which have decayed, showing the coffins behind the walls – these coffins were triple lined – wood, then lead, then another layer of wood, just to be sure body snatchers wouldn’t get in. It is thought that these coffins weigh about a quarter of a tonne each. In here you will find a coffin of a doctor who was called Robert Liston – he was well known as he was a doctor who could amputate a leg in 30 seconds. That sounds pretty impressive now doesn’t it, but think about how much more impressive it was doing that without anesthetic. There is a story about how he broke his own record of a leg amputation, doing it in 28 seconds, it was only after he looked that he realised he had also taken the gentlemans testicles off as well, so didn’t count that effort. Why Robert Liston is important is that he was the first doctor in the UK to use anesthetic, so you can thank Robert Liston for you never having to suffer through an operation awake.
There are other items of interest within the West part of the cemetery, such as the beautiful chaple which is the feature picture to this article, the grave of Michael Faraday and many other notable people. There are some fantastically intrinsic gravestones in this section, but you also need to look for empty spaces as these are unmarked communial graves, your tour guide, should you visit, will explain, but it is quite sad that these people lay unremembered.
The East part of the cemetary was opened in 1854 as Highgate had become one of the fashionable places to be buried. This is on flatter ground and today still allows burials within it. It has beautful gardens and the most famous grave you will find within it is Karl Marx.
You will find a good many other famous artists and writers buried here – such as Paul Caulfield (with his DEAD grave stone to reflect his dead pan take on life), Jeremy Beadle, George Elliot, Malcom Mclaren, Anna Mahler and Douglas Adams.
Anna Mahler, Douglas Adams, Jeremy Beadle and Paul Caulfield to name a few…
There are approx. 170,000 people buried within Highgate in 53,000 graves (do remember that many are family plots), and you can easily lose a day just wondering around this quiet corner of London.
Along with the fascinating grave stones, you will see some beautiful nature, with very tame foxes running around, and wonderful plant life.
Glimpses of Nature
If you want to visit Highgate Cemetery, you can find out more about its guided tour here.
I will leave you with a few random shots of other beautiful things which are within its grounds.
Have you been to Highgate Cemetery? Why not tell me what you thought in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?
I’m rather drawn to cemeteries, too.
If you think about it, cemeteries, though they host the dead, are rather for the living. Why else commemorate with lavish stone? Why else place epitaphs, memorials and dates if not for the living to read? The dead surely do not care.
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