Death’s Garden: Dancing on May’s Grave


May Woolsey’s gravestone, Old City Cemetery, Sacramento, California

by M. Parfitt

“You have the same hair as May Woolsey.” That comment from the volunteer coordinator at the Discovery Museum was my introduction to the twelve‑year‑old girl who would virtually take over my life during the Fall of 1996.

I was an occasional volunteer for the museum. When I originally volunteered, I offered myself as an artist. Occasionally they gave me interesting sign-making projects, and once they let me set up a small display, but to my disappointment, they just loved my speed and accuracy at the cash register. They stuck me in the gift shop for hours and hours and hours.

Many times, I’d walked past May’s hundred‑year‑old trunk full of Victorian goodies. May herself never reached across the decades and spoke to me until that day, when I peered closely into the jumbled collection of relics and saw her thick, two‑foot‑long auburn braid. It was, indeed, just like mine.

The story of May’s life and death is mundane — an ordinary childhood cut short byencephalitis, a common 19th‑century disease. She was born in 1866 to Luther and Mary Woolsey of Sacramento, California, attended Primary School No. 3, belonged to the First Congregational Church, and died suddenly on September 21, 1879. Her brief existence would’ve faded from memory as her family grew old and died off, were it not for an act of her distraught parents: they packed all of May’s personal belongings into a trunk and, in keeping with the melodramatic customs of the time, sealed the trunk into a secret compartment below the stairway of the Woolsey home.

Toys, dolls, clothing, shoes. Schoolbooks, calling cards, newspaper clippings, party invitations. A sepia‑toned studio portrait of May herself, her long wavy hair gracefully arranged over her shoulder. All these ephemeral remains, the tangible evidence of an obscure, brief life, remained carefully hidden away until 1979, when the new owner of the Victorian house in the Alkali Flat neighborhood fortuitously happened upon the hatch cut into the second-floor landing.

I wasn’t living in Sacramento in 1979, so I missed the media attention May achieved that spring. Her time capsule, discovered exactly one hundred years after it had been so carefully concealed, was studied by local historians and put on display in the museum. May Woolsey had earned her fifteen minutes of fame.


“Where are You Going and What Will You Do When You Get There?” collage by M. Parfitt

Fast forward to 1996: My tenuous connection to May, via our matching hairstyles, was about to intensify. I was soon to become May Woolsey.

The volunteer coordinator brought it up casually. “The Old City Cemetery is planning a Halloween Moonlight Tour as a fundraiser,” he explained. “They need volunteers to portray interesting people who are buried in the cemetery. You know, with that hair, you could be May Woolsey.”

I cut him short with a reminder that it had been a long, long time since I’d been a twelve‑year‑old.

“It’ll be dark, you’ll be in a costume, and the audience will be pretty far away. C’mon, you like cemeteries. It’ll be fun.”

I couldn’t come up with an argument. The thought of hanging out in a cemetery at night — and not getting kicked out — was intriguing. He had me by my two‑foot‑long braid.

My transformation into May Woolsey required research. I stared at her belongings through the glass display case, taking in the details of her fancy Victorian gloves, beaded purse, and satin slippers. I imagined what it was like for her to play with the archaic games and toys found in the trunk, their rules and instructions guided by the straitlaced etiquette of her day. She had quaint things like small patchwork quilt fragments, dolls, bits of knitting, and some very serious-looking little textbooks.

My portrayal would involve reading excerpts from May Woolsey’s diary — and May, it seemed, was obsessed with fashion. Her diary entries described a “lovely fan,” pink silk “stockens,” and a new party dress of black silk trimmed with velvet. She also listed the colors and styles of the dresses worn by her friends. She was a hip twelve‑year‑old, by 1879 standards.

May’s tale featured a postscript straight from a Victorian ghost story. Mrs. Woolsey, disconsolate in her loss, had hired a spiritualist to communicate with May from beyond the grave. And sure enough, tucked in the trunk among May’s possessions was a letter seemingly written by the late, lamented daughter: “Dear Mama, I am so happy as I did write to you and say I was happy. Now, Mama dear, do not weep for me….”

The letter offered hope of a reunion and, no doubt, gave Mrs. Woolsey a bit of solace. However, the lower edge of the letter had been torn off before it was placed in the trunk. The last words, and the signature, were missing. This enigma lay at the heart of May Woolsey’s story: Had she communicated from beyond the grave?

My job was to look and sound like May Woolsey: stand at her grave, read her words, recite that mysterious unsigned letter. I thought back to my own pre‑teen years: my passion for the New York Yankees, my appetite for Mad magazine, those knockdown-dragout battles with my brothers. I had nothing in common with this 19th‑century girl. How could I possibly pull this off?

I also had absolutely no acting experience. Four other volunteers, portraying Mr. and Mrs. Woolsey and two incidental characters, would round out the plot of our little drama, but May was the central character. The idea of speaking in front of a crowd didn’t scare me. In fact, I relished the idea of a captive audience. I wanted to be seen and heard — but being seen and heard as this Victorian maiden that didn’t thrill me. Although I didn’t know it at the time, May had her own plans. She, too, wanted to be seen and heard.

The final rehearsal went off without a hitch. The logistics of setting up a theatrical lighting system in a cemetery proved to be a nightmare, but we had an experienced technical staff and, after some fine‑tuning, it did work. Plenty of sound checks assured us that the wireless mikes were functional. We would give our performance for an early audience, relax for an hour, then do it again for a late audience.

The sun went down. The first audience filed in.

From our hiding places behind nearby headstones, we watched the other actors play out their scenarios of sad and mysterious deaths. There might’ve been forty or more volunteers for the Moonlight Tour. Our story was fourth on the route through the cemetery, so we had plenty of time to get ready. It should’ve gone off without a hitch, but May Woolsey had other plans.

The audience approached our site and settled into place on the benches and bleachers set up for the occasion. The lights went up and we started our performance. Suddenly, all the lights went off — all, that is, except the one that was aimed directly at little May Woolsey, the star of the show. The support staff scrambled to illuminate my cohorts with flashlights, but our seven‑minute skit was performed almost entirely in shadow.

The audience didn’t seem to mind. We bowed to their polite applause, stood at our positions until they trudged off to the next grave, then shook off our panic with a bout of frantic equipment checks. The next performance would be perfect.

A strange wave of mischievous energy washed over me. I felt like giggling, like dancing. My high‑collared lace blouse, recently picked up at a thrift store for 99 cents, suddenly looked pretty and feminine. (I forgot I was wearing an old sweatshirt underneath it for warmth.) My stockinged legs were warm. My tall lace‑up boots were sturdy. My petticoats and layered skirts rustled and spun around me. I wore a slip, a two-layer crinoline, and a calf-length skirt with three flounces. Not historically accurate, but it was the best I could do with very little money. In the dark, it looked fine. It gave the effect of Victorian opulence, and that was all that mattered.

The big satin bow in my flowing auburn curls fluttered in the wind. I wanted — needed — to be free and silly and ridiculous.

I ran to the chainlink fence that separated the cemetery from Riverside Boulevard. Finding a spot illuminated by the full moon and a conveniently placed streetlight, I jumped out of the shadows, into view of the passing cars. Horns honked, fingers pointed — the sight of a Victorian girl dancing in a cemetery on Halloween night nearly caused a five‑car pileup. A pirouette and a curtsy, and back I went into the shadows. I ran gleefully back to my grave. I mean, May’s grave.

The late audience arrived on schedule and we took our places in the dark. The lights went up. No problem. The first actor started speaking. Without warning, his microphone died. He was forced to shout his lines. The next actor took his cue and, within seconds, his microphone crackled and fell silent. On it went, each actor hollering lines meant to be spoken softly and reverently. My cue approached. I spoke. My mike worked. May’s mike worked.

The evening belonged to May Woolsey. Her lights, her microphone. No one could overshadow her this night. Afterward, the actor who played Mrs. Woolsey swore the spirit of May had been angry about the scene enacted on her gravesite. However, I knew better. I was May Woolsey for a few minutes. I knew she simply wanted to show off and dance and be a kid again, after all those silent years.

May didn’t mind the scene. She just wanted to steal it.

This piece originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #2. Check out M. Parfitt’s other essay about the Old City Cemetery here.



M. Parfitt is an artist, writer, collector of exquisitely awful junk, keeper of hair, saver of broken toys, and hoarder of yellowed newspaper clippings.  You may find her wandering down a deserted alley, traipsing through an old cemetery or peering into an abandoned warehouse.  Her mixed-media work incorporates fabric, paper, blood, hair, lint, nails, dog fur and other unexpected materials.  

Cemetery Travel interviewed M. Parfitt about guiding tours here.




Death's Garden001About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next couple months, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.

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Where Are They Buried?

Where Are They Buried?: How Did They Die? Fitting Ends and Final Resting Places of the Famous, Infamous, and NoteworthyWhere Are They Buried?: How Did They Die? Fitting Ends and Final Resting Places of the Famous, Infamous, and Noteworthy by Tod Benoit

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Any collection of famous people’s grave sites is going to be idiosyncratic. Ask 10 people whose graves they would like to visit and you will get 100 different answers. That said, this is the most comprehensive guide to the graves of the famous that you will find outside of Find-a-grave.

Mostly that is because — without photographs of the grave monuments in question — this book can include a whole lot of people whose ashes have been scattered. It seems a shame not to be able to leave a kitchen knife at the grave of Alfred Hitchcock, but perhaps that’s for the best. I would have loved to leave a rose at the grave of John Lennon, but the mosaic in the middle of Strawberry Fields in Central Park will have to do.

Included in the book is the grave of Fred Gwynne, best known at Herman Munster on TV. Gwynne is buried in an unmarked grave. Despite the directions to an unmarked plot where the author claims Gwynne is buried, the cemetery itself discourages visitors. It makes me sad that someone who gave such joy to strangers is consigned to the ground without a monument — and those who might wish to leave thanks at his grave are turned away.

Be that as it may, this is an entertaining and comprehensive encyclopedia. I’ve gotten hours of fun from it.

You can order your own copy from Amazon.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

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Curiosity and the Cat

This is one of my favorite cemetery memories. It appears in my book Wish You Were Here, but it would suit Death’s Garden, too.

Just a reminder: I’m still looking for more Death’s Garden essays. Do you have a cemetery story to tell?

Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

The Thousand JizosUnlike most of the musicians who hosted us on my husband Mason’s first solo tour of Japan, I considered Mayuko a friend, instead of a business acquaintance. I looked forward to staying in Yokohama as if she offered sanctuary rather than crash space. Mayuko spoke relatively fluent English; the difficulty of communicating in Japan — even with people I knew — hit me harder than expected. I obsessed about being an ignorant foreigner, blundering through a culture I could not comprehend. I worried about offending our hosts by accident. At Mayuko’s, I thought I could relax.

When we arrived at Mayuko’s tiny apartment, she immediately took me under her wing. She gauged the effects of culture shock and jet lag, then drew me a Japanese bath. All I needed was to sleep well, she said. Tomorrow would be my first day as a tourist in Japan: a day without business…

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Death’s Garden Revisited call for submissions

Death's Garden001

Twenty years ago, I was given a box of miscellaneous cemetery photos. They had been taken by my best friend’s husband over the course of his travels around the Americas. Blair was 28 years old and dying of AIDS. He wanted to know his photos had a good home.

I decided to put together a book that would feature those photos. Initially, I was going to write all the text, but as I talked to people about the project, everyone seemed to have a cemetery story to tell.

The book title expanded from Death’s Gardento Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries. I was thrilled to discover that people I knew — even complete strangers — all had a graveyard they’d connected with, either because a family member was buried there, or because they’d visited it on vacation, or because they’d grown up in a house near it, or for a whole bouquet of other reasons.

The contributors varied from people I met through zine publishing to a ceramics professor at Ohio State University, writers for the LA Weekly, professional artists and photographers, underground musicians, depressed high school girls, and punk rock diva Lydia Lunch. As the book came together, Death’s Garden blew away my expectations.


Morrison monument in Glenwood Cemetery, Flint, Michigan. Taken by Loren Rhoads.

The initial print run of 1000 copies sold out 18 months after my husband and I put it together for our publishing company. I’d only asked for one-time rights to use everyone’s contributions, so I couldn’t republish it. Once it was gone, it was gone.

As the years passed, I’ve lost track of many of the contributors. Some are dead and have a different relationship with cemeteries altogether now. Others have sunk into the anonymity of a pseudonym on the internet.

For a while now I’ve wanted to assemble a second volume of Death’s Garden.  I think there are a lot more stories to be told about relationships people have formed with graveyards. For instance, what’s it like to be a tour guide? How are cemetery weddings different than others? What’s the strangest cemetery you’ve ever visited, or the most beautiful, or the spookiest?

Eventually, I’d like to put these new essays into a physical book, but for now, they’ll feature on Cemetery Travel. This feature is open to anyone who has ever visited a cemetery where something special happened, either good or bad.  Tell me about your relationship with a cemetery.  I’d like to publish it on

What I’m looking for:

  • personal essays that focus on a single cemetery
  • preferably with pictures
  • under 1500 words (totally negotiable, but the limit is something to shoot for)
  • descriptive writing
  • characterization, dialogue, tension: all the tools you’d use to tell a story
  • but this MUST be true — and it must have happened to you!

Reprints are accepted.  If you’ve written something lovely on your blog and wouldn’t mind it reaching the couple thousand people who subscribe to Cemetery Travel, let me know.

If I accept your essay for publication on Cemetery Travel, be warned: I may do some light editing, with your permission.

Also, I’ll need:

  • a bio of 50-100 words
  • a photo of you
  • a link to your blog or book
  • links to your social media sites, so people can follow you.

Finally, if — as I hope — this project progresses to becoming a legitimate book, I will contact you with a contract and offer of payment.  Stay tuned!

To be absolutely clear:  I am only looking for guest posts for the moment.  Payment will come when I have the funding in place for the book.  Right now, I am only looking for one-time or reprint rights.

In the meantime, here are some links to the original Death’s Garden:

You can submit your story via the Contact Me form above or leave a comment below and I’ll get in touch.  Thanks!

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A Restless Wind is Blowing Through Highgate


winterNo one agrees where this story started or rather, there are as many beginnings as there are storytellers.

In the early days, Hampstead Heath was the only thing sinister about the area. Highwaymen flourished there, like Dick Turpin, whose ghost still loiters ’round the pub. The village of Highgate stood on a tall hill overlooking the city of London, sprawled across the river plain below. Highgate’s name described its function: it served as point of entry for farm goods coming from the countryside to feed and clothe the metropolis.

Following the nondenominational fashion set by Pere-Lachaise in Paris, Highgate Cemetery was founded in 1839. The “garden cemetery” was envisioned as a place of beauty where Londoners could escape the smoke and dirt of their city. It offered controlled nature — serene, park-like, and safe — beside the wilderness of Hampstead Heath.

The cemetery made the area fashionable. While it was no Kensal Green — final home of a Prince of England, William Makepeace Thackery, Wilkie Collins, Lady Byron, and friends of Shelley’s — Highgate managed to land Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Radclyffe Hall, the family of Charles Dickens, as well as various balloonists, menagerists, scientists, and philosophers like Karl Marx.

Among the artistic souls buried in the western half of the graveyard was Elizabeth Siddal, muse, mistress, and eventually wife to Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A hat-maker’s assistant, beautiful Lizzie had been wooed by the dashing Italian immigrant, who refused to settle down after he’d won her heart. Increasingly depressed after a stillborn child, Lizzie took her own life with an overdose of laudanum in 1862. At the graveside service, distraught Rossetti placed a handwritten volume of poems on the pillow just before the coffin lid was sealed.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Venus VerticordiaRossetti’s fortunes faltered after his muse removed herself from the mortal plane. He became convinced that he was going blind and losing his painterly skill, that he was destined to be remembered as a poet rather than as a painter. His questionably scrupulous agent persuaded Rossetti that he could cement his reputation if only he’d publish the poems consigned to Lizzie’s grave. In October 1869, permission was granted to exhume the coffin, as long as it was done by night and did not upset the neighbors or patrons of the cemetery. By flickering torchlight, workmen peeled back the damp rich dirt of England.

This is perhaps where our story begins in earnest: When Lizzie’s coffin was forced open, all that remained of her beauty was the silken mass of her auburn mane. The grave robbers brushed tendrils of hair from the silk-bound manuscript, which was fumigated, then published by the profligate poet. Lizzie’s sad remains were returned to the cold autumn ground.

The story was leaked, possibly by one of the horrified torchbearers, to Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper. Elizabeth Miller in her book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense theorizes that Bram Stoker read the news while working on Dracula, since the paper also reviewed the Lyceum’s production of King Lear, with which Stoker was involved. If that’s the case, Lizzie Siddal served in death as another man’s muse, transmuted into Lucy Westenra and given life beyond the grave. David J. Skal reports in V is for Vampire that Stoker was once a neighbor of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s.

Whether Highgate Cemetery was the churchyard described by Stoker remains a matter of debate. In Dracula, Van Helsing says, “Lucy lies in the tomb of her kin, a lordly death-house in a lonely churchyard, away from teeming London; where the air is fresh, and the sun rises over Hampstead Hill, and where wild flowers grow of their own accord.” The fictional newspaper reports of Lucy’s postmortem attacks on children are headlined Hampstead, the town west of the heath. Highgate lies on its eastern edge.

Whatever the true inspiration, the century turned. England endured World War I, in which one of every three soldiers perished. At the war’s end, the influenza pandemic swept the country, killing thousands. The young and vigorous, plucked in their prime, glutted the nation’s graveyards.

World War II finished the job, wiping out most of a generation of men. In the first decades of the century, whole families had ceased to exist. No one survived to tend the graves; no money came from new burials to pay the army of gardeners. In the 1940s, Highgate was abandoned to nature. And Nature ran rampant.

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, rabbits, songbirds, and hundreds of insect varieties.


In 1968, the cemetery featured in Taste the Blood of Dracula, one of Hammer Studio’s costume thrillers starring Christopher Lee as the immortal count. In the film, three bored businessmen contact a lord whose family cut him off for practicing Satanism in the family chapel. The men acquire a vial of dried blood and Dracula’s cape, then travel by carriage to Highgate. They climb over a fallen tree, fight through the underbrush, and find themselves at the creaking gate of the Egyptian Avenue. They navigate the sunken catacombs, then enter a towering mausoleum (whose interior existed only on a soundstage) to reconstitute the eponymous count. So, perhaps, our story begins.

In March 1969, the British Psychic and Occult Society heard tales of a tall black apparition amidst the graves at sunset or after dark. The original sighting was traced to an accountant referred to as Thornton in the Society’s report, Beyond the Highgate Vampire. Thornton had been exploring the cemetery. At dusk, as he attempted to leave, he became hopelessly lost. A sudden sense of dread caused him to turn. Over him loomed a dark specter that transfixed him with its glare. He lost all sense of time and felt drained of energy when it finally released him.

The Society investigated the cemetery. Mostly, it discovered widespread vandalism: “vaults broken open and coffins literally smashed apart.” A vault on the main pathway had been forced open and the coffins inside set afire.


Highgate Cemetery, photographed in June 2016 by Loren Rhoads.

Though this clearly had a human origin, sightings of the dark figure continued. The Society decided to perform a séance in the cemetery at midnight on August 17, 1970. They cast a protective circle on the ground, sealing it with consecrated water and salt. After the séance began, they heard muffled voices coming toward them. The police had decided belatedly to patrol the cemetery. Despite the dangers of leaving the circle before the spirits were banished, Society members scattered. Society president David Farrant was arrested as he tried to slip past the police. Among the paraphernalia he carried was a short wooden stake with a string for measuring out the magic circle. This was taken as evidence that he had been hunting vampires.

Farrant was acquitted, since legally Highgate was open to the public, even at midnight. The magistrate likened the hunt for vampires to the search for the Loch Ness Monster: foolish, but harmless.

In his book, Farrant meanders off on a justification of his Wiccan faith and the evils of Christianity. This is at odds with the photo of him included in the booklet (published 1997) “hunting a vampire” clutching a crucifix and “Holy Bible.” Apparently his beliefs about the efficacy of the crucifix have evolved over the last three decades. He posits a ley line that runs from a haunted pub in Highgate Village called Ye Olde Gatehouse under the old “yew” tree in the center of the cemetery’s columbarium. (In all other references, the tree is a cedar — hence, the area’s designation as the Circle of Lebanon.)

The British Psychic and Occult Society officially closed its examination in 1973 due, Farrant writes, to the “concern of the cemetery authorities and the police who saw the Society investigation as being responsible for a marked increase in damage and desecration at the cemetery.” He neglects to mention that he was in court again in June 1974. The prosecution contended that “Farrant was the vampire of Highgate,” according to Rosemary Ellen Guiley in her book Vampires Among Us. Farrant was charged with maliciously damaging a memorial to the dead, interfering with a dead body, tampering with witnesses by sending them poppets, and possession of a firearm. The last charge earned him several years in prison.

Perhaps this was neither the beginning nor the end of the story. Sean Manchester, then president of the British Occult Society (no relation to the British Psychic and Occult Society), claims to have begun investigating phenomena at Highgate Cemetery in 1967. Manchester interviewed two 16-year-old schoolgirls who reported seeing graves inside Highgate yawn open and corpses rise. Afterward, one of the girls, Elizabeth Wojdyla, suffered nightmares where a corpse-faced man tried to get into her bedroom.

When Manchester caught up with Elizabeth again in 1969, “her features had grown cadaverous.” Her neck had two “highly inflamed swellings” with holes in their centers. Manchester vowed to rescue her from the vampire obviously feeding on her.

In his quest, Manchester encountered another young woman whom he believed was under vampiric attack. In his book The Highgate Vampire, he refers to her as Lusia. Like Lucy Westenra, Lusia walked in her sleep. Manchester followed her from her apartment into Highgate Cemetery, up the “haunted icy path” through the Egyptian Avenue to the catacombs in the Circle of Lebanon. Lusia paused before one of the tombs and struggled to open it. Manchester flung a crucifix between her and the door. The girl collapsed and had to be carried home. Her parents must have been thrilled when Manchester showed up with her.

Manchester went to the press in February 1970. He told the Hampstead and Highgate Express, “We would like to exorcise the vampire by the traditional and approved manner — drive a stake through its heart with one blow just after dawn, chop off its head with a gravedigger’s shovel, and burn what remains.”

When no volunteers stepped forward to help, Manchester approached the media again in March, intruding while David Farrant was being interviewed by a television crew about the “hauntings” inside Highgate. Farrant stresses that he took great care to avoid the term vampire, but a “theatrical character” announced that he intended to lead a vampire hunt the following night.

Hundreds of people showed up to assist. The police arrived with spotlights. Despite the carnival atmosphere, Manchester and an assistant chopped a hole through the roof of the tomb in the catacombs. Manchester was lowered by rope into the vault, where he found three empty coffins. He sprinkled each with garlic and holy water, then encircled each with salt, according to Carol Page’s Bloodlust: Conversations with Real Vampires.

The exorcism didn’t halt the desecration of graves, the mutilation of corpses, or the slaughter of foxes and other small animals found drained of blood in the cemetery. In fact, after the exorcism, someone dragged a woman’s corpse from her grave, chopped off her head, drove a stake her through the heart, and left her body lying in the middle of a pathway.

In the winter of 1973, Manchester eventually traced the King Vampire to an abandoned mansion in north London (already investigated by Farrant’s BPOS as haunted), where he discovered an enormous black casket. Manchester and his assistant Arthur dragged it outside. Manchester kicked the coffin lid off and … Well, perhaps it’s best to let him tell the story: “Burning, fierce eyes beneath black furrowed brows stared with hellish reflection. Yellow at the edges with blood-red centres, they were unlike any other beast of prey.”

Manchester staked the corpse through its heart, shielding his ears “as a terrible roar emitted from the bowels of hell.” The corpse turned to brown slime. The stench was so awful, Arthur forgot to work his camera and the event passed unrecorded.

The two men built a pyre, tossed the coffin on, doused it with gasoline, and set it ablaze. Incredibly, no one in London noticed the explosion, the smell, or the smoke.

While he’s never been officially charged with vandalism or “interfering with a corpse,” Manchester remains persona non grata at Highgate Cemetery.

In 1975, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery formed after the cemetery’s owner shut down the Western Cemetery for economic reasons. FOHC volunteers worked on Saturday afternoons to clear brambles, fell invasive trees, and reopen access to gravesites. Eventually, FOHC bought the entire cemetery. They now sell guidebooks and offer tours to raise money for their work.

Which is where I come into the story. I visited Highgate for the second time in June 1995. I was determined to see the western side of the graveyard, where the Rossettis and Lizzie Siddal are buried. Outside the large “undertaker’s gothic” chapel, I paid three pounds to join a guided tour. Our guide explained that a tunnel runs from the Anglican chapel under Swain’s Lane to the “newer” eastern side of the cemetery (where the first burial occurred in 1860) so that a coffin never leaves consecrated ground once the body has been blessed.
The Friends of Highgate treat the western side of the cemetery as “managed wilderness.” Simply cutting back the ivy would be a full-time job, so they only trim enough of the brush to keep some paths open and remove trees whose roots threaten monuments. The British National Trust and British Heritage have both funded conservation efforts. For the most part, the Friends maintain the cemetery in its romantic decay. Only in the most extreme cases, like the Circle of Lebanon, do they resort to restoration.



Highgate’s Egyptian Avenue, photographed in June 2016 by Loren Rhoads.

One of the highlights of the tour was finally seeing the Egyptian Avenue for myself. It was originally painted red, blue, and yellow, to lure tourists to the cemetery. Now it is simple gray. An Egyptian arch with obelisks on either side leads to a sunken avenue open to the sky. Family tombs, carved into the hillside, line the avenue. Each is set apart from the next by columns with lotus bud capitals. The valley was wonderfully cool in the humid June afternoon.

We followed the avenue to its end in the ring of catacombs called the Circle of Lebanon. The old cedar in the center survives from the original Ashurst estate, predating the cemetery by at least 150 years. Its spreading branches curtained our tour group 20 feet below the surface of the ground. FOHC is concerned for the tree because of its age and having had the ground around cut away beneath it.

We passed Radclyffe Hall’s tomb without remark from the guide. I happened to turn at the right moment to read, “And if God choose, I shall but love thee better after Death,” the epitaph chosen by Hall’s surviving girlfriend. Una Troubridge had hoped to be buried beside the love of her life, but died in Rome and was never returned home. I snapped a quick murky photo as the tour group moved on without me.

The tour climbed up to the mausoleum of Julius Beer. It is the “largest and grandest of all the privately owned buildings in the Cemetery,” according to the FOHC guidebook. Its design was inspired by the tomb of King Mausolus (from whom we draw the word mausoleum) at Halicarnassus, Turkey — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Beer’s mausoleum has a stunning blue and gold mosaic ceiling. After it was broken into and its residents dragged out of their coffins, the mausoleum has been converted to a tool shed by the Friends of Highgate.


The Beer family mausoleum, Highgate, June 2016. Photo by Loren Rhoads.

In the Victorian era, the Jewish Beer family migrated to London from Frankfurt. Julius Beer owned the London Observer, but society shunned him because of his religion. In order to be buried in Highgate, he converted to the Church of England in the 1880s. Previous to that, people came to Highgate on weekends to picnic on the land above the Circle of Lebanon. Beer’s revenge on society was to construct his mausoleum to obstruct their view. Rumor insinuated that he had killed his family. His wife died first, followed by their eight-year-old consumptive daughter. Inside the mausoleum, a marble angel stoops to kiss a life-sized child — whose face was modeled on the death mask of Beer’s little girl. Beer himself died of apoplexy in his early 40s. His son Frederick took over the Observer and slid into madness.

Although he spent 5000 pounds on his mausoleum and owned a major newspaper, Beer did not receive an obituary in the London Times. If ever anyone deserved to come back as a vampire, I nominate Julius Beer. Persecuted for his religion in life, hounded by ugly rumors after his death, he seems most justified to be the demonic figure in black which inhabited Highgate Cemetery.

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