Halloween is fast approaching. With the sun setting earlier and earlier here in London, Jeff and I decided it was high time to check out Highgate Cemetery and see if any spirits were roaming the grounds. While we saw nothing paranormal or otherworldly, we were certainly astounded with the sheer beauty of this space.
Situated far north of central London, Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 as a response to the parish grave sites becoming full and then over-full from the population boom. London had decided to create the “Magnificent Seven,” or seven massive cemeteries surrounding the city to help in sanitation and the over-crowding churches were facing. Today, in Highgate, there are 170,000 people buried in 53,000 graves. Many of the grave stones are crooked and broken due to the shifting and unstable ground, but also poor upkeep.
This would make a perfect horror film premise, but walking around the grounds with the changing leaves and intense green foliage, I felt nothing but peace. “Cemeteries are for the living, not the dead.”
Getting tickets is a bit tricky for this attraction. You can’t book tickets in advance for the weekends. It’s completely first-come-first-serve, and the first tour is at 11a. We arrived at 1045a and were pushed into the 1130a group since a line had already started forming. They do make you book a tour if you want to see the West part of the cemetery; the original and more historical side. With your West ticket, you do get into the East side for free, but if you’d rather bypass the West, tickets are £4 to casually stroll through the East side. Tickets for both were £12 per person.
The founders of Highgate Cemetery originally bought 17 acres of land in the Highgate Hill area of Islington. But quickly, real estate was filling up, so they purchased an additional 20 acres across the road to form the “East” side. More of the familiar names reside in the East such as Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), Karl Marx (The Communist Manifesto), and Mary Ann Evans (famous for writing as George Eliot).
We walked through the overgrown grounds reading off names and dates trying to place them in history. And then we came across Karl Marx’ grave. It was massive; a monument with a sculpture of his head sitting proudly on top. What’s interesting about his spot is that it is not the original. He was hidden away among the other anonymous names but moved to a more prominent and obvious location. I wonder what he would have thought of that since he preached about the common man and communism.
We began our tour of the West side promptly at 1130a. Our tour guide, Henry, who looked like one of The Beatles, started off with the history of the cemetery in the large colonnade. When funerals would take place, the hearse or wagon would bring the coffin into this space and they would perform the service inside the chapel. But once the service was over, the body could not leave the consecrated land. This would cause a problem for those being buried in the East cemetery across the road because the road itself was not consecrated.
Instead of consecrating the section of the road, the Victorians decided to build a tunnel connecting the West and East underground. The body could shimmy under the earth and over to the East. This sounds rather extravagant to me, but who am I to take away new technology?
We were first told of the Victorian symbols on the graves and what they meant. If a Roman column stood proudly but broken, it symbolized a life not fulfilled. The famous urn with a funeral shroud draped over it is to symbolize the ashes or spirit of the individual floating up to heaven, even though cremation was not allowed until much later (probably because they were running out of space).
The graves we stopped at were not famous names, but it gave Henry a chance to tell us stories of the time and tidbits about the people buried there. However, he was very rushed. The tour was 70 minutes long, and I definitely feel like I could have benefited from another 20 minutes. We were whisked to the Egyptian Avenue where the facade is modeled after the columns and lotus flowers famous in Egyptian burials.
The alley was haunting and beautiful as The Circle of Lebanon was slowly revealed. On top of this circle of mausoleums is a large tree that has never been cut down, but does not grow any further. The structure acts as a large flower pot containing the gorgeous tree providing more of the ever-green atmosphere.
We were ushered then to the catacombs. This is the part of the tour we could not take photos, but you wouldn’t want to because it was so dark. In this small hallway, we followed our guide without letting our eyes adjust. But as soon as they did, I took in a sharp breath. Coffins were inches from my face. I could have sneezed on one they were so close. I was mildly freaked out by this; not because of spirits but because there is a corpse so close to my face. It was slightly mortifying.
But the catacombs was created to give grieving families the chance to visit their loved ones and see the coffins. For some reason, they wanted to see the metal and wood boxes their decomposing relatives were stuck in. I did not.
Just outside the catacombs is the Julius Beer Mausoleum. Build for his daughter who died at the age of 8, Julius constructed this massive space with ornate marbling and even a recreation of his darling daughter using her death mask. It made no matter that he was Jewish because his wife was Anglican and also he had more money than he knew what to do with. The mausoleum was completed just in time for his own death, so he joined his daughter in this family grave.
The rest of the tour whisked us through the overgrown trails and through the more modern and recent headstones. I asked what the prerequisites were to be buried in a place like this with real estate running out to which Henry said there were only two criteria:
- You had to be dead. You could not buy your plot in advance. Your family was responsible for getting your spot.
- You had to be able to pay for it.
I so wanted to know the cost of a plot, but with time running short, we breezed right on.
I’m so glad we went to the Highgate Cemetery. It was astoundingly beautiful and amazing to see such overgrown and rich history in the middle of a suburban area. But I was disappointed in the rushed manner of the tour. I would have paid a little extra cash for a little extra time. Also, we were on a very controlled path. We saw a fraction of what was actually there because of health and safety and unsure footing, but I would have liked a little more exploration. But what we lacked in exploring the West, the East side allows you to go wherever your heart’s content.
A lovely spot in north London. If you haven’t seen it yet, add it to your list of things to do.
Other notable souls in Highgate Cemetery:
- Carl Mayer, writer for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
- Hercules Belleville, American film producer (Sexy Beast)
- William Foyle, the co-founder of Foyles Bookshop
- Leslie Hutchinson, a cabaret star in the 1920s and 1930s
- Sir Colin St John Wilson, architect known for the new British Library