Forget the Taj Mahal, Tutankhamen’s Tomb or even Tower Bridge: all grand in their own right, statements of wealth, status, conquest and achievement of the privileged elite and their contribution to society. Head instead to a place that is the ultimate leveller, a place where death insists the great and good spend eternity lying cheek by jowl with the infamous, forgotten or plain rotten, assembled all in cemeteries, that speak to us through epitaphs, symbolism and architecture, reminding us of our own mortality and fragility. Grand or not, we too will end up as dust, quite possibly forgotten.
For almost 200 years, Highgate Cemetery has been quietly gathering together, over 188,000 of London’s citizens, to rest peacefully on the side of a hill to the north of London in one of the most beautiful and haunting landscapes I have ever experienced.
Crammed together is a bewildering array of tombstones, monuments, vaults, catacombs and sepulchres, crowded into 37 acres across two sites. You can’t fail to feel intimidated by the many headstones proclaiming the occupants’ great deeds; pianists and singers, the developer of the first postage stamp, the father of all dog shows, a Marxist, architects, philosophers, a vampire, generals and field marshalls, historians, a TV food host, authors, a secularist, a world famous bookshop founder, a spy, pop artist…and so it goes on. You had to have been someone to be below ground here!
Guiding our West Cemetery tour group was John Maine, just one of 40,000 volunteers who have given of their time over the past 40 years to clear trees, index and archive grave sites, repair headstones and guide the curious around this incredible national asset. A former BBC man, I suspect John could have entertained us for a lot longer than the allotted 70 minutes we had with him. A raconteur, we were putty in his hands as he turned what could have been dry, yet ghoulish subject, full of boring ‘who did what when’ into fascinating yet witty stories about the great, the good and the unfortunates who came to rest on this hillside.
Options for dignified and sanitary funerals were extremely limited in London, and it was no longer viable to stuff your deceased relatives under the floorboards. To tackle this unpleasant problem of a lack of space to bury London’s dead without the use of quicklime or being dug up again to make room for someone else, an Act of Parliament was passed in 1836 that saw the formation of private cemeteries in the countryside around London, including Highgate in 1839.
Since then, Highgate Cemetery has been quietly gathering together, over 188,000 of London’s citizens, to rest on the side of a hill above London in the most beautiful and haunting landscapes I have ever experienced. This unparalleled elevation, unique architecture and space, meant that the wealthy would be encouraged to invest. The deeper your pockets, the deeper your choosen burial site. Literally. In today’s money, you could be looking at no less than £40,ooo.oo per site. There was no shortage of takers with the millionaire newspaper owner Julius Beer, one such investor who built the cemetery’s most impressive monument, to his eight year old daughter Ada.
A tunnel beneath Swain’s Lane connected the new eastern ground with the Church of England chapel in the older western side. With the aid of a hydraulic lift, coffins would descend into the tunnel and remain on cemetery ground for their passage to the other half of the cemetery. The building hides it’s intended purpose well, as it looks very gay!
There are no horrible artificial flowers and old glass jars here; pungent wild garlic jostles with young nettles, vivid hellebores, emerging prehistoric-like fern fronds, blue and white bluebells, cowslips and cherry blossom under a royal blue May Day sky. Once open parkland with uninterrupted views down to the city, the site was shut for 60 years as the company was declared bankrupt in 1960, the gates shut to the day trippers enjoying picnics, groups of unaccompanied ladies on an afternoon out, even families visiting grave sites. During that time, the vegetation took hold and a dense covering of trees grew with roots driving deep down or taking a firm purchase over and around the sarcophagi.
When the charitable trust that runs the site today was formed, it was a monumental task to clear the site, although not all the trees were removed. They add shade and provide homes for wildlife that bring beatiful song and colour, but still cause damage when blown down in storms – which can also reveal unknown sites, including that of Edward Hodges Baily who sculptured the bust of Horatio Nelson atop Nelson’s Column. Despite a prolific career, he died penniless in 1867, as the client he had worked for the last seven years of his life never paid him, despite his work on Buckingham Palace taking pride of place as a frieze around the exterior!
The catacombs were, as expected, cold and creepy, the goulish tales of body snatchers, the hunt for Count Dracula and Victorian burial customs told disconcertingly close to the coffins; some open to the elements, their contents long gone (some used as childrens’ playthings no less), others still on their shelves, safely behind their marble headstones.
When a man is tired of London, he should head to Highgate Cemetery, as he will perhaps find a renewed interest in this great city that has been shaped by its myriad of citizens, many of whom are here, and as he pause’s to read the epitaph’s, he will reminded of what this city was built on. Flesh and bone.
There is symbolism everywhere, something the Victorian’s turned into an art form and once you know what to look for, gives a lot away about who is inside.
Book: The Testament, often open at a suitable page
Broken column: cut off in the prime of life and often denotes the head of the family. Broken or severed flower: A sign or early or sudden death. A severed bud denotes a child.
Celtic cross: Originally associated with the pre-Norman Church particularly in the Celtic fringe areas.
Circle: The sign of eternity.
Clasped hands: Found on family graves and symbolising either the hope of reunification in the next life or ‘Farewell, see you soon.’
Lamp: The light of knowledge and truth.
Laurel: Wreath Accolade to life’s achievements.
Lyre: (harp) A recognition of musical talents.
Obelisk: the ancient Egyptian symbol for life and health.
In 1975 The Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed with the aim “…to promote the conservation of the cemetery, its monuments and buildings, flora and fauna, for the benefit of the public as an environmental amenity.” The charity relies on admission charges and donations to maintain and enhance this extraordinary place and is worth your support. I know I will be back to explore further.
I would like to thank my son Conrad who took the majority of these beautiful photographs.