On a cold rainy day, I visited Highgate Cemetery on a whim. I took a guided tour by a volunteer guide who regaled us with fascinating tidbits of history. Divided into two parts, east and west, Highgate Cemetery is one of the great monuments of London. It is Grade I listed by the National Heritage List of England (the highest architectural historical honour a monument can be given because they are of exceptional interest). One of the so-called Magnificent Seven, Highgate Cemetery in North London stands testament to the depressing fascination of the Victorians with death, mourning and keeping up appearances.
The Magnificent Seven Cemeteries
Prior to the early 19th century, all of London’s dead were buried in local parish churchyards. As the population grow, this method lead to overcrowding and unhygienic disposal of corpses. People literally would just bury the dead in ditches near their homes.
Traditionally, wealthy people would bury their dead in their family cemeteries on their country estates. Neither the poor nor the growing middle class had the luxury of this option. So London was just getting more crowded until finally a cholera epidemic prompted the authorities to act.
In 1832, a Parliamentary encouraged the creation of private cemeteries in the outskirts of the city. They were inspired by the famous Parisian cemetery, Pere Lachaise built in 1804. Eventually seven such cemeteries were built – Highgate, Nunhead, Brompton, Abney Park, West Norwood, Tower Hamlets and Kensal Green. The term Magnificent Seven was given to the Victorian cemeteries in the 1980’s by an architectural historian.
Highgate Cemetery in North London
Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 and soon became a fashionable place to visit. Set in the beautiful countryside, the Victorians would make day trips to the cemetery to visit their dead relatives and picnic in the grounds.
The Victorian Fascination With Death
The Victorians had elaborate ceremonies for funerals and mourning. The lead example of mourning was Queen Victoria who wore black mourning clothes for 40 years after the death of her husband. There were even manuals that laid out the specifics for mourning etiquette (e.g., how long to wear mourning clothes for your first cousin by marriage twice removed).
The Victorian headstones are elaborate because they were a way to show who much grief and love they were feeling. A happy accident, of course, was that you were also able to flaunt your wealth and engage in a bit of pageantry. You had elaborate funeral corteges with black horses pulling carriages of mourners and the hearse. There were also mourners paid to follow the hearse looking suitable sombre.
In an age of prosperity where more people than ever were living longer than ever, the Victorians were really obsessed with the frailty of life. Many grave monuments were carved to depict life being cut short – broken columns, draped urns, etc. Besides, after the funeral cortege side-show arrived at Highgate Cemetery, you couldn’t just dump granny in any old grave.
Victorian Tombs in Highgate Cemetery
I thought the Victorian tombs were beautiful, especially in the sombre light of the grey day. Notable people who are buried here include: Henry Gray, the author of Gray’s Anatomy (not the TV series!!), Charles Cruft, the founder of the Crufts Dog Show, Christina Rossetti, poet, and the parents and wife of Charles Dickens.
The Victorians created Egyptian Avenue because interest in Ancient Egypt was very fashionable at the time. Its main feature is a giant cedar of Lebanon tree which had been in the manor grounds from which the land was purchased.
Post-Victorian Tombs in Highgate Cemetery
Highgate cemetery now has over 170,000 people in 50,000+ graves. The most famous person buried in Highgate Cemetery is Karl Marx (on the Highgate East side). I thought his tomb was one of the less attractive ones. The giant head looming over everything is, in fact, a bit disconcerting.
You know what’s funny? Marx being buried in Highgate which is full of the middle-class capitalists that he despised. You would have to search hard to find any members of the proletariat like he intended (factory workers). At least he is in the vicinity of the nannies, drivers, housekeepers etc. which can substitute for his proles and the wealthy champagne socialists that hire them.
I was surprised to learn that the cemetery still accepts corpses for burial. With the changing demographics of North London, it has become popular with the Russians. I saw the tomb for Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian who was poisoned using polonium in 2006 in what is widely believed to be a Russian-government ordered execution. He was buried in a lead-lined coffin so that the poison wouldn’t leak into the environment.
Visiting Highgate Cemetery
You can book tours online for Highgate Cemetery directly at their website. You can only visit the Highgate West side (which is the most overgrown and architecturally interesting) on a guided visit. I really enjoyed my visit which was fascinating and educational thanks to the excellent guide/volunteer who really knew his stuff.