London is basically built on layer upon layer of graves. The book opens with the Bronze Age tumulus on Parliament Hill, which the author calls one of the oldest burial grounds in the city, predating Highgate Cemetery by over 4000 years. I would have liked to hear much more about the earliest burials in the area.
And I would have liked to read more about the Roman-era graves as well. I was thoroughly fascinated by the earliest chapters of this book, since those are the times I am the least familiar with.
The book really grabbed me when it explored the plague pits of the medieval Black Death. I hadn’t realized that the Danse Macabre (or Machabray) had ever come to England from the continent. I could have read much more about those centuries, although so little seems to be left above ground to mark them.
The Tudor chapters were fascinating, but things started to slow down for me after that, as the author got into material I knew better. If you are newer to the study of all things dead in London, you might find this crucial material. For me, the pace dragged.
There were highlights, though. I loved to read about Shelley and Keats in Highgate Village, before the cemetery was built. I’m fascinated by the work of Isabella Holmes, previously unknown to me. She visited every surviving graveyard in London, in hopes of closing them down and converting them to parks. I’m going to have to track down her reports. And the chapter about the fight to legalize cremation gave me insight into another subject I don’t know enough about.
All in all, this is a very readable book, full of intriguing tidbits and lots of food for thought. However, I wish each chapter had a map to display the locations of the places she talks about — or better yet, transparent maps so you could overlay them as see how deep the bodies go.
In March 1999, I met Thomas Roche, who was editing nonfiction for Gothic.Net. I pitched him a column about visiting cemeteries: on vacation, with friends, with my parents, with tour guides. My initial list of proposed columns had 42 cemeteries from San Francisco’s historical columbarium to the artists’ graveyard Vysehrad in Prague.
I’d never written a column before. I had published a handful travel essays in Trips magazine and the Traveler’s Tales books. I’d edited the book Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries and three issues of Morbid Curiosity magazine. Tom had no indication that I could actually do what I was proposing. He gave me a chance anyway.
My first column appeared in April 1999. It was adapted from my introduction to Death’s Garden, which had gone out of print. It was part survey of cemeteries I’d visited, part manifesto about why it was important to visit graveyards and what they had to teach us.
For the next couple of years, I wrote each month about a cemetery I’d visited, roaming from Gettysburg to Hiroshima, from Northern Michigan’s Mackinaw Island to the Roman catacombs. Gothic.Net never put any limitations on what I wrote about — and the editorial staff were hugely encouraging. Often I’d get nice emails from them even before the essay had gone up online.
After I’d written the first dozen columns, I started to think about putting together a book. I began to travel to historically significant cemeteries just so I could write about them. My husband Mason and I arranged a tour of East Coast cemeteries, starting in Boston and driving to Providence, then on to Sleepy Hollow, Philadelphia, Gettysburg, and back to Brooklyn to see Green-Wood Cemetery. In all, we visited 14 cemeteries in 11 days. It was wonderful.
Then my younger brother died suddenly and I got pregnant at 39. Complications ensued.
It took a while for me to complete the book. I joined the Red Room Writers Society in October 2004, which gave me a place to escape to (the Archbishop’s Mansion) where I could write shoulder to shoulder with other writers. I finished a bunch of new essays, filled out the book, and named it Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel.
It took a while to find a home for it, but John Palisano published it in May 2013 through his Western Legends Press. Working with John was a dream: he let me choose the essays, arrange them how I liked. He made me a book trailer that I love.
When Black Dog & Leventhal approached me to write 199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die, I asked John if I could have the rights to Wish You Were Here back. There were some errors I wanted to correct and I wanted to include an index. The updated version was published on July 21, 2017.
I have felt so lucky and supported as I created this book. It contains 35 of my graveyard travel essays and visits more than 50 cemeteries, churchyards, and gravesites across the globe. It explores the pioneer cemetery in Yosemite, the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Arlington, Pere Lachaise, Vysehrad, the Protestant Cemetery of Rome and the Catacomb of Saint Sebastian, and so much more.
It starts with me discovering my love for cemeteries when I visited Highgate for the first time in January 1991 and ends just before my daughter’s birth in 2003. There’s so much more I want to say about cemeteries–and so many more essays I’ve written. I’ve started to assemble a book that I’m calling Still Wish You Were Here: More Adventures in Cemetery Travel. I think it might be out early in 2023.
In the meantime, you can see where this all began in Wish You Were Here:
Hello! I’ve missed you. I’ve been swamped in my other life, editing a book of horror stories to benefit survivors of last year’s Camp Fire, the worst natural disaster Northern California has seen. That book — Tales for the Camp Fire — will be out in May.
In the interim, I’ve been visiting some of the local pioneer cemeteries as research for that book, but so far, I haven’t gotten my notes polished up. Soon my life will have more balance, I hope, and I can begin posting regularly on Cemetery Travel again.
In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy one of my favorite interviews I did last year.
The interviewer asked, “What was so glorious about your first visit to Highgate?”
Loren: Before I visited Highgate, I hadn’t spent a lot of time in graveyards. I was familiar with the little farming community cemetery down the road from where I grew up – and my date wanted to take our prom pictures in a lovely old garden cemetery near our small town — but Highgate was my first experience with a cemetery as an outdoor sculpture garden. I was immediately fascinated by the angels standing on graves or peeping out of the ivy. They were lovely, I could get as close as I wanted, and it was possible to walk all around them and look at them from every angle. I still don’t know as much about art as I should, but I am an ardent student of beauty. Highgate inspired me to look for the beauty that is so common in cemeteries and rare in real life.
Before I saw Highgate, I assumed that cemeteries were permanent and unchanging. Learning about that cemetery’s history of vandalism and neglect opened my eyes. Cemeteries are really very fragile, almost ephemeral. All it takes is an ice storm or a determined kid, to say nothing of a hurricane or an earthquake, to do irreparable damage. While Highgate is full of monuments to famous people, it was the stones that remembered average people that most captivated me. I realized that once their monuments were damaged, it was possible the memory of their lives would be completely erased. I found that really poignant. It’s inspired my crusade to persuade people to visit cemeteries. If people don’t begin to fall in love, then cemeteries will crumble away and be lost.
Her second question: “What is it about cemeteries that makes you feel alive?”
Loren: Other people may see my fascination with cemeteries as morbid, but I don’t. Visiting cemeteries, especially while traveling, is restorative to me. I can get overwhelmed by crowds and maps and concrete. I counteract that by walking in the sunshine, listening to the birds sing, smelling the flowers, and looking at some gravestones. Cemeteries remind me that every day aboveground is a blessing.
Question #3: “What sort of things can people gain from a visit?”
Cemeteries offer a surprising variety of experiences. They provide habitats for birds and wildlife, as well as arboretums and gardens of surprising beauty. They can appeal to art lovers, amateur sociologists, birdwatchers, cryptologists, master gardeners, historians, hikers, genealogists, picnickers, and anyone who just wants to stop and smell the roses. Our relationships with the places we visit can be deepened and enriched by learning the stories of those who came—and stayed—before us.
Some cemeteries offer tours, whether self-guided, historian-led, or put on by actors in costumes who represent the people interred there. Others offer galleries or libraries dedicated to the works of people buried here. Some provide book clubs, host author events, show movies, or serve as venues for celebrations like Dia de los Muertos or Qing Ming. Friends of the Cemetery groups host cleanup days for cemeteries that need extra care, which is a great way for people to give back to their communities.
No 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.
Rossetti’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.
One of my favorite cemeteries: Highgate Cemetery in May
This is my 500th post on Cemetery Travel. That blows my mind. When I first started this blog in February 2011, I was looking to impress my agent, so she could find a publisher for my collection of cemetery travel essays.
As much as she liked the proposal I sent her, she wasn’t able to find a publisher for it. I despaired, even as the blog itself took on a life of its own.
At first I saw the blog as an appendage of the book, adding essential details to the essays. Eventually, the Cemeteries of the Week progressed beyond to 50-some graveyards in the book. I wanted to direct travelers to the cemeteries and burial sites I hadn’t visited yet. Some of those posts have been my most popular, hinting at how much cemetery travel information is needed.
In the meantime, I continue to travel to visit graveyards. On Memorial Day, I hiked through Madison, Wisconsin to see the native mounds at Forest Hill Cemetery. Earlier in the month, I spent a glorious day with Emerian Rich, exploring the cemeteries of Contra Costa County, California. I’m looking forward to revisiting Highgate Cemetery soon, seeing the Pantheon in Paris, and finding the Kiss of Death sculpture in Barcelona’s Pobleno Cemetery. I have so many more cemeteries to see.
I’m excited to continue the Death’s Garden series of essays. 33 authors have joined the blog so far, some more than once. They have written about the graves of family members, celebrities, and paupers. They’ve described famous statuary and forgotten monuments. They’ve visited cemeteries far from home and just around the corner. They’ve explored fame and memory and the sense of indescribable peace that comes from being surrounded by acres of tombstones.
The contributors have been cemetery bloggers, tour guides, theater directors, horror writers, and more. They’ve advocated for restoration. They’ve arranged cemetery cleanup crews. They’ve dressed in costume, researched historic inhabitants, and rescued people from being forgotten. They’ve also told some pretty good ghost stories.
Jane Handel’s hand-colored photo that graced the cover of the original Death’s Garden collection.
I’m excited to see where Cemetery Travel will take us next. I’m working toward a book called Death’s Garden Revisited, which will collect the best of the Death’s Garden essays, along with gorgeous photography. I’d like to do a second edition of Wish You Were Here, updating where necessary and adding an index to make it more useful for researchers. And I’m continuing to chip away at the Historic Cemeteries of the San Francisco Bay Area.
This year I’ve gotten one novel out, to be followed by its sequel in November. I think 2017 may be the year to bring my cemetery projects into the world.
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