Tag Archives: Abney Park

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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A Pocket Guide to London’s Cemeteries

London's CemeteriesLondon’s Cemeteries by Darren Beach

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Despite its pocket size, this is more of an armchair travel book than a take-along guide to cemeteries. It only includes maps to the largest graveyards and most cemeteries rate only a page or two to cover their history, architecture, and celebrity graves. That being said, it is still a worthy addition to your cemetery library.

It’s great fun. The author describes the “tree that killed Marc Bolan” outside Barnes Common Cemetery. He encourages that respects be paid at the most tenuous celebrities. He points out bomb damage from World War II and even, at one point, from a bomb dropped by a zeppelin. He gushes when a cemetery is particularly beautiful and snipes when one isn’t up to standard. He seems to have actually visited each of the 50 cemeteries listed herein. He is honest in his assessments: some cemeteries “could have been beautiful,” some deserve visits only by completists, others suffer from “anodyne” (a word he uses repeatedly) chapels or crematory rose gardens.

Of course, the book could have more photographs. Not every cemetery gets one, but some of those includes are spectacular. My favorite is of the statue of an aviator killed in 1938 and buried in Eltham Cemetery. As the author points out, he looks he’s wearing a “post-apocalyptic anti-radioactivity suit.” I wouldn’t have known about him without this book.

I did find a few errors, which of course call into question all the stuff I don’t know cold. For instance, in the entry on Old Mortlake Cemetery, the author states in an aside that Charles Dickens is buried in Highgate West. Dickens is buried at Westminster Abbey, against his wishes. His family lies at Highgate. Later, in the entry on Greenwich Cemetery, Beach compares its views of London to the views of Paris from Montmartre’s Pere Lachaise. I’m not even sure which Parisian cemetery he means here (it might be Montmartre itself or St. Denis), but Pere Lachaise is in the east of Paris and Montmartre is in the north. He’s mixing metaphors.

Even so, I give this book four stars. It’s added a bunch of cemeteries to my must-see list. I will just be careful to cross-reference the author’s enthusiasm with other books on London cemeteries before I take what he writes as gospel.

Hopefully, its errors have been corrected in the 2019 edition, which you can pick up at Amazon: London’s Cemeteries.

London cemeteries on Cemetery Travel:

Cemetery of the Week #2: Highgate Cemetery in London, England

Cemetery of the Week #63: Westminster Abbey, London, England

Cemetery of the Week #70: Kensal Green Cemetery, London, England

Cemetery of the Week #71: Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury, England

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