London England’s Prestigious Gothic Cemetery

by M-Gillies

In the 1960s various people claimed to have come in contact with vampires and ghosts whose descriptions included a tall man in a hat, a spectral cyclist, a woman in white, a face glaring through the bars of a gate, a figure wading into a pond, a pale gliding form all accompanied by ringing bells and voices calling.

Dominated by Gothic monuments, a plethora of wildlife and a seemingly neglected overgrowth of ivy, briars, ferns and moss, the Highgate Cemetery of London in the United Kingdom is perhaps the most prestigious and well known cemetery in the world. With massive oak trees canopying the surrounding aged crosses, tall obelisks, urns and tombstones within its labyrinth of catacombs that tell the story of a person’s life, Highgate Cemetery has, for years been the ideal attraction for many thanatourists looking to experience and relive the past.

With an excess of 50,000 graves in Highgate Cemetery, the grounds are home some of the world’s most historical and influential figures, from George Eliot, Henry Moore, Ralph Richardson, Douglas Adams to Karl Marx, whose tomb saw attempted bombings in 1965 and again in 1970.

While Highgate Cemetery continues to be a working cemetery, its grounds used to be only accessible for interment to the wealthy and prestigious.

It was during a period of inadequate burial spaces along with high mortality rates in nineteenth century London that saw the country facing a major crisis. With graveyards and burial grounds placed between shops, houses and taverns; unauthorized and illegal burials; improper burial procedures which saw bodies being wrapped in cheap material, buried with other human remains in graves just a few feet deep and the use of quicklime to increase rapid decomposition so graves could be reused, the sanitation of the living quickly began to deteriorate.

Even as the population exceeded one million people, the increasing population coupled with the growing death rate saw a strain in new burial spaces. Seeing a potential health hazard, authorities determined a resolution had to be passed and by the early 1830s, Parliament passed a statute that would see seven new private cemeteries open throughout the countryside around the capital.

Shortly after the proposal of the new cemeteries, The London Cemetery Company was formed in 1836, and shortly after, for the sum of 3,500 British pounds, a seventeen acre plot of land was purchased. It was during the next three years that the land was landscaped with exotic formal planting, complimented by the stunning and unique architecture that would secure Highgate as the capital’s principal cemetery.

For the next twenty years, the cemetery saw the construction of two chapels, Church of England and Dissenters, built in a Tudor style and topped with wooden turrets and a central bell tower overtop a linking archway to the two conflicting churches to create an imposing entranceway to the cemetery grounds.

However, it was during this time that Highgate attracted a varied clientele, earning it a title of being the capital’s most fashionable cemetery. Recognized for its eccentric structure of sixteen vaulted passageways known as the infamous Egyptian Avenue and adorned with gothic catacombs. With the cemetery’s increasing popularity it was soon extended in 1854 with the construction of the East Cemetery which is considered by many to be the more darker and atmospherically gothic part of the cemetery.

While intended for the more prominent Victorians, Highgate Cemetery is the home of many private graves, many which are lavishly decorated with statues and monuments of graceful angels, weeping figures and elegantly constructed tombstones. Despite the famous figures who have been interred within the cemetery, the most famous of all is that of philosopher Karl Marx, whose grave is considered to be amongst the most visited.

During the 1930s, while some wealthy families continued to purchase select Rights of Burials, Highgate Cemetery saw itself falling into a terminal decline, resulting in less expensive and more common graves being offered. By the 1960s, the threat of bankruptcy forced the London Cemetery Company to become absorbed into the larger United Cemetery Company. However, a greater number of graves became abandoned as families died out and soon maintenance became minimal until 1975, when cemetery funds from the United Cemetery Company ran out, forcing the gates of Highgate Cemetery to close.

In an attempt to save the cemetery for grave owners, public benefit and future generations, The Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed and, over the next three decades continued to restore and preserve over seventy monuments, the Egyptian Avenue, Circle of Lebanon and the Terrace of Catacombs.

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Highgate Cemetery

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