Up till the middle of the 19th century, if you died in London you were buried in the parish graveyard or, if you were sufficiently rich or important, actually under the floor or in the walls of the parish church. Not only was this insanitary but, between 1800 and 1850 the population of London grew from a million to over two million, so there simply was not enough space, especially when London suffered one of it regular outbreaks of typhus, cholera, diptheria or other plagues and infestations when the death toll shot up.
In 1804 Napoleon, in an attempt to improve public health in Paris, had forbidden further burial in local places of worship. Instead cemeteries, such as Pere Lachaise – a large park with trees, walkways and benches where you could rest – started to appear. In 1832, the British followed suit and while not actually banning local churchyard burial, Parliament passed a bill allowing private cemeteries to be built outside the city of London. As a result, over the next ten years, seven large cemeteries were established around the city, of which Highgate is one.
The others are Kensal Green, West Norwood, Abney Park, Nunhead, Brompton and Tower Hamlets and if you want to know a bit more about them, check out the Billion Graves blog.
Highgate cemetery is divided by Swains Lain into the East and the West Cemeteries. The West cemetery is the older and grander, opened in 1839, entered through this imposing gateway.
It is filled not only with grandiose monuments and mausoleums but with ‘circles’ and walkways. This is the Egyptian Avenue but there is also the Circle of Lebanon and long passages of crypts.
The East cemetery on the other side of Swains Lane was opened in 1854 and is far less grand although no less populated by famous names. Both however are now nature reserves and are on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens – which means that they teem with birds and bees and butterflies and foxes and squirrels. This was what I saw when I just held my phone inside the railings.
(If you want to see the video you will need to click onto the blog as the email notification does not include the video.)
The cemeteries are now closed because of COVID but you can normally vist although you do need to join a tour. All details here. And, if you fancy it, you can still be buried there – there are still spaces. If you were to choose to be so, you would join an amazingly random collection of luminaries….
Karl Marx – obviously….
Douglas Adams of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
George Eliot – of Middlemarch
Paul Foot – journalist
William Foyle – co-founder of the bookshop
Malcolm McLaren of the Sex Pistols
Felix Topolski – artist
Catherine, John and Elizabeth Dickens – wife, and parents of Charles
Christine Rosetti – poet
Jane Dean has just sent me this lovely image of the burial ground at Yealand Conyers in Lancashire.
The village has close links with the Quaker movement as the Quaker leader, George Fox preached there in 1652. He was supported by a local man, Richard Hubberstone, who helped organise secret Quaker meetings in the area and ‘continued to uphold the faith until 1662 when he died in Newgate prison.’ The Quaker meeting house in the village was built in 1692 and both it and the burial ground are still in use.
Thanks to The Bulletin, the Keighley Quaker’s Newsletter, for this information and the picture of the meeting house.
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