Cemetery of the Week #2: Highgate Cemetery

Highgate Cemetery in May

Highgate Cemetery
Swain’s Lane
London, Highgate, N6 6PJ
United Kingdom
Telephone: (+44) (0)20 8340 1834
Email: info@highgate-cemetery.org
Dedicated: May 20, 1839
Size: 37 acres
Number of interments: 170,000 people buried in 53,000 graves
Open: The cemetery is open every day, except December 25 and 26. Weekdays: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Weekends and bank holidays: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Last admission is always at 3:30.
Admission to the East Cemetery: 3 pounds for adults.

When the London Cemetery Company founded Highgate Cemetery, they envisioned the “garden cemetery” as a place of beauty where Londoners could escape the smoke and dirt of their city. The graveyard offered controlled nature — serene, parklike, safe — beside the wilderness of Hampstead Heath.

In the 19th century, people flocked to Highgate Cemetery. They brought picnics and strolled the lanes, marveling over the wealth of statuary and beautiful greenery. Inspired by the birdsong, they courted here. With thirty funerals a day, people flowed constantly in and out.

The 20th century dawned. England endured World War I, during which one of every three soldiers perished. At the war’s end, the influenza pandemic swept the country, killing thousands. World War II finished the job, wiping out most of a generation of men. By the 1950s, whole families had ceased to exist. No one survived to tend the graves; no money came from new burials in family plots. Without income to pay its army of gardeners, Highgate Cemetery was abandoned to nature.

By the end of the 1960s, Highgate Cemetery was choked with weeds, shadowed by a dense forest of ornamental trees, and colonized by wildlife from the Heath that included foxes, hedgehogs, and rabbits.

In 1968, the overgrown cemetery featured in Taste the Blood of Dracula, one of Hammer Studio’s costume thrillers starring Christopher Lee. Perhaps that inspired the outbreak of vampire hunting that mutilated Highgate Cemetery in the 1970s.

The Friends of Highgate Cemetery formed in 1975, after the cemetery’s owner went bankrupt and padlocked the western half of the cemetery. FOHC volunteers cleared brambles, felled invasive trees, and reopened access to gravesites. Eventually, the Friends bought the entire cemetery. They now offer tours to fund their work. Their schedule is here.

Among the famous dead buried at Highgate lie Karl Marx, as well as authors Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Radclyffe Hall, and Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Other gravesites worthy of social calls include impresario Malcolm McLaren, actor Sir Ralph Richardson, social reformer George Jacob Holyoake (the last man arrested for atheism in Great Britain), William Friese-Green (inventor of “kinematography”), and Carl Mayer (co-author of the screenplay for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), as well as the various balloonists, menagerists, scientists.

Useful links:

Highgate Cemetery website

The Highgate Vampire story

One of Highgate’s angels

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Highgate Cemetery:

Highgate Cemetery: Victorian Valhalla

London Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide

London Cemeteries

Who Lies Where

 

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. Scribner published my favorite essays from Morbid Curiosity magazine as Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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