Daily Archives: August 5, 2012

The definitive book on London’s cemeteries

London Cemetaries: An Illustrated Guide & GazetteerLondon Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide & Gazetteer by Hugh Meller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hugh Meller was the Historic Buildings Representative for the National Trust, so he grasps the intersection of architecture and British history. The book does descend into jargon from time to time, but it is the most comprehensive and complete guide to the graveyards of London I’ve read yet. As you may guess, I have a pretty good collection on the topic.

Opening with a lovely hand-drawn map, my edition of the book is the third. (I see a fifth edition was published in 2011, which expands the list of cemeteries covered from 103 to 126.) In addition to the Victorian-era Magnificent Seven cemeteries (Highgate, Kensal Green, Brompton, Abney Park, Nunhead, Norwood, and Tower Hamlets), Meller pokes around the Jewish cemeteries, the Dissenters’ cemeteries, and pretty much any cemetery that still exists and is not affiliated with a single parish or church.

Which begs the question: has someone written a Graveyard Shift: A Family Historian’s Guide to New York City Cemeteries-style book about London, tracing all the early burial grounds and plague pits, now gone? There would be a lot of history to explore!

Back to the matter at hand: Meller begins with a history of burial reform in England. London lagged not only behind Pere Lachaise, but also behind Glasgow and Liverpool in closing down the noxious churchyards and switching instead to “garden” or “rural” cemeteries where nature and beauty were celebrated in the face of grim death. Meller describes fashions in grave monuments and architecture, illustrated beautifully with crisp black-and-white photography. He includes a quick glossary of tombstone symbols, again fully illustrated with photographs. Some brief thoughts on epitaphs are followed by a chapter on the flora and fauna of the cemeteries, and then we’re off to visit the graveyards themselves.

Each listing has a summary of the cemetery’s history, its decline and redemption (if appropriate), photos, architectural and monument descriptions, and a smattering of familiar or historically important personnages in the graveyard under discussion. These names total more than 1000. They are helpfully indexed at the back of the book.

While the book is scholarly, it isn’t dry. I would recommend it both to the novice visiting London’s cemeteries for the first time and to the repeat visitor looking for more depth to her explorations. You can order your copy of the most recent edition from Amazon: London Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer.

London cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Highgate Cemetery

Westminster Abbey

 Kensal Green

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