Tag Archives: London cemetery

Death’s Garden: The Cemetery that Changed My Life


All photos of Nunhead by Carole Tyrrell.

by Carole Tyrrell

It was the long, hot summer of 1989 when I first visited Nunhead Cemetery. My father had died unexpectedly earlier that year, the first death of someone really close to me. He’d been cremated, so there was no resting place for me, or anyone else, to visit and grieve.

This was Nunhead’s annual Open Day, so I took the opportunity to enjoy its Gothic atmosphere. I was already drawn to Victorian cemeteries after reading Hugh Meller’s London Cemeteries and Nunhead is one of London’s Magnificent 7. Lucinda Lambton once described them as a jet black necklace running through London. Nunhead was no municipal cemetery, neatly manicured, tombstones in neat rows like teeth. Inside the imposing gates was overgrown Gothic splendour: angels under dark canopies of leaves and ivy, a roofless chapel, a myriad of fascinating monuments and memorials. I felt that I wanted to be amongst these reminders of the dead and departed to mourn. I was home.

I joined the Friends on that day in 1989 and began working on the monthly Friends of Nunhead Cemetery publications stall, which accompanied the general cemetery tours. You never knew who would come up to the stall to speak to you. Often it was local residents who remembered playing in the cemetery after it was abandoned and locked up by its owners in 1969. Its railings long gone for the war effort, nothing prevented anyone going in and exploring. I wouldn’t have been able to resist it. There were horrible tales of mausoleums being broken into, coffins lying about after having been rifled for jewelery — and skeletons as well. Eventually, questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament. As a result, the local council bought it for £1.

Visitors often just said how creepy it was, but what an amazing place inside. One man told me that he was a psychic and could sense all the departed spirits around him. He added that he was reassuring them and sending them on their way elsewhere. He seemed completely sincere. I’ve often wondered since what it must be like to have that kind of ability.

Sometimes visitors would ask about one particular symbol, as they couldn’t understand what it was doing in a cemetery. This was what they called ‘the dollar sign’ or the combination of the letters IHS which means Jesus Honimum Salvator. I found out what it was for future questions, which led me onto a fascination with the meaning of cemetery symbols.

As a result, I created the Symbols tour and began my career as a tour guide. Originally it was just going to be about symbols, but visitors also wanted the general history of the cemetery and the reasons behind the Magnificent 7’s creation. It’s always a little scary when you announce yourself to the gathered group and all eyes turn to you and your mind goes completely blank.

Nunhead2But they’re always very keen. On a very wet Sunday afternoon, I kept turning round, thinking that the group behind me would all have given up but, no, they kept going right to the end. Unfortunately, although the Victorians ‘borrowed’ from classical antiquity, Arts & Crafts, Celtic and Egyptian civilisations, they didn’t put them in chronological order in the graveyard, so we have to run about a bit.

I soon realised the value of visual material to hand round and spent an afternoon in the British Museum researching our largest monument: the John Allan tomb, based on the tomb of Payava in Lycia, Turkey. It takes up an entire room of the museum. I was always interested in history at school and my involvement in cemeteries has been a marvellous way to keep involved.

You never know what you might find in a cemetery, despite how familiar you are with it. In 2013, during a long winter, we discovered an unusual anchor-shaped tombstone commemorating a sailor killed in the First World War, although not buried there. In Winter 2014, I was updating my tour notes. Whilst walking along a familiar path, I looked up to see a small face carved at the centre of a cross which I had never seen before. I will have to do some more research on it.

I always emphasise on the Symbols tour that it’s an introduction to the subject and there are many more to found. Even on modern memorials there is often a symbol, a way of individualising it. In Nunhead, we have one 15-year-old boy’s grave ornamented with a football and snooker board, and the mask of comedy and tragedy on an actor’s grave.

faceI’ve only had one strange experience in the cemetery, or rather, outside it. One Christmas I was on my way to a Christmas social at a local community centre. As I passed by the cemetery‘s high wall along deserted Linden Grove, I heard children’s voices from inside the cemetery. As it was a cold night, I didn’t think children would be out playing. The houses opposite didn’t have any windows open. I walked on and the voices faded behind me.

The Brockley footpath runs along one of the high walls of the cemetery. Ill-lit, it is pitch black at night. Atmospheric, to say the least. I was making my way along it as a shortcut to an evening walk. Whenever I looked back, I could see that the darkness catching up behind me. I did walk a little faster after that.

I have visited cemeteries in the UK, America, and Venice. The way in which the dead are treated are often an indication of how the living are treated. Tears pricked my eyes at Ground Zero. Calton Hill in Edinburgh was certainly the eeriest one I’ve visited. Then there was the supernatural experience I had in Greyfriars Kirkyard, but that’s another story. However, Nunhead will always feel like home. No famous people, no royal connections, but instead a place in which to wander, to reflect, admire the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the hill, as butterflies flutter around you on a warm summer’s day.

portraitCarole Tyrrell has always had a desire to walk on the darker side of life. A published ghost story writer, her passion for cemeteries and graveyards began after her father died and she felt a need to be where the dead were remembered.  She visited cemeteries in New York, Venice, Edinburgh, and all over the UK, but she prefers slightly overgrown Victorian cemeteries where ivy-clad angels watch as she discovers the stories behind every epitaph.  She is a cemetery tour guide, specialising in the intriguing subject of symbols, and has her own blog called Shadows Fly Away. You can keep up with her on Facebook.


About the Death’s Garden project:

For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. (This one’s a little late.)  If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you. The submissions guidelines are here.

Cemetery of the Week #112: Golders Green Crematorium

Exterior of the crematorium. Photo © Carole Tyrrell.

Exterior of the crematorium. Photo © Carole Tyrrell.

Golders Green Crematorium
aka Golders Green Memorial Gardens
Hoop Lane, off the Finchley Road
London, England NW11 7NL
Telephone: +44 20 8455 2374
Founded: 1902
Size: 12 acres
Number of cremations performed: 323,500+
Open: Winter hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Summer hours: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

One of the oldest crematories in England and the oldest in London, Golders Green may also be the best-known crematorium in the world. Over the years, many famous people have chosen to be cremated there. Some remain there in urns in the columbarium or beneath rosebushes in the garden.

Golders Green is the name of the once largely Jewish neighborhood. The Crematorium stands across from a Jewish cemetery, but accepts all denominations. An estimated 2000 people are cremated there each year.


Inside the cloisters. Photo © Carole Tyrrell.

Cremation was legalized in Britain in 1884. For the first 17 years, Londoners had to travel by rail to be cremated in Surrey. After Queen Victoria died in 1901, her surgeon Sir Henry Thompson – also president of the Cremation Society – opened Golders Green the following year.

The redbrick crematorium was built in an Italianate style with a large tower that hides its chimney. It was built in stages as money became available. The current crematorium was completed in 1939. Its three columbaria contain the ashes of thousands of Londoners.

The 12-acre garden contains several large tombs, two ponds with a bridge, and a large crocus lawn. Apparently, that’s quite spectacular in early springtime.

In addition to the columbaria, there are two cremation chapels and a chapel of remembrance. On almost every wall, says London Cemeteries, there are commemorative tablets. The earliest ones hang on the cloister walls.


My hero. Photo © Carole Tyrrell.

A different book called London’s Cemeteries says Golders Green is “the place to go for after-life star-spotting.” Among the people cremated here whose ashes were either scattered here or placed in the columbaria: Kingsley Amis, children’s author Enid Blyton, Marc Bolan, Sigmund Freud with his wife and daughter, Rocky Horror’s narrator Charles Gray, Who drummer Keith Moon, playwright Joe Orton (whose ashes were combined with those of his murderous lover Kenneth Halliwell), ballerina Anna Pavlova, actor Peter Sellers, Bram Stoker.


Sigmund Freud’s urn and pillar. Photo © Carole Tyrrell.

Many more have been cremated here, but their ashes were either scattered or enshrined elsewhere. Among these are England’s Prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Westminster Abbey), poets Rudyard Kipling (also Westminster) and TS Eliot (Church of St. Michael, Somerset), and the writers Henry James (Cambridge Cemetery) and HG Wells (scattered off the coast of Dorset).

Maps are available from the office and reports are that the staff is very helpful in finding a specific location. The columbaria are now locked, although they can still be visited with a guide. It seems there is also a tearoom, but I haven’t been able to turn up any information about its hours. There’s a photo of it on foursquare.


Anna Pavlova’s marble urn. Photo © Carole Tyrrell.

For Darren Beach, author of London’s Cemeteries, “the Golders Green Memorial Gardens are among the most spiritually satisfying places in London…It could be the tranquility inspired by the sheer geometry of the place – the chapels surrounded by arched brickwork form a kind of eerie coastline to the oceans of gardens beyond.”

Extra special thanks to Carole, for lending me her beautiful photographs!

Useful links:
London Cemeteries page on Golders Green

The English Heritage listing for Golders Green

European Union Crematoria page on Golders Green

A list of the people remembered there

Information on the War Memorial at Golders Green

Video of one of the Marc Bolan remembrances

Website of the nearby Jewish cemetery

More about cremation on Cemetery Travel:

Roman Cremation in Pompeii

A Brief History of Cremation in the US

A tour of a crematorium

An In-Depth Visit with London’s Permanent Residents

Permanent Londoners: An Illustrated Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of LondonPermanent Londoners: An Illustrated Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of London by Judi Culbertson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love the Culbertson and Randall “Permanent” series books because they don’t strive to be comprehensive. Other cemetery guides become tedious lists of all the famous people jammed into a cemetery, but these books go for depth instead, collecting up biographies of a few choice permanent residents. It’s arguable you take more away from this series than the others, where either you recognize the famous names or you don’t.

While Permanent Londoners spends a fair amount of time on the Magnificent Seven cemeteries (Brompton, Highgate, Kensal Green, etc.), it really shines for poking around inside landmarks that make up in history what they lack in acreage. Four chapters explore Westminster Abbey; one covers the Poets’ Corner alone. Other chapters look into the Tower of London and St. Paul’s crypt. That’s worth the price of the book right there, as far as I’m concerned.

I also like that the book wanders as far as Windsor Castle, discussing the monarchs who chose to be buried at home, rather than in town.

My copy was published in 1996, but I see a more recent version came out in 2000. I hope someone allows them to update it for the current decade.

You can find some used copies of the 2000 edition on Amazon here: Permanent Londoners: An Illustrated Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of London

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Cemetery of the Week #96: St. Paul’s Cathedral

St Paul Anne cloud002

The statue of Queen Anne outside St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s Cathedral
London, EC4M 8AD United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 20 7236 8350
Founded: 604 AD
Number of memorials: More than 200
Open for sightseeing: Monday to Saturday 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Last tickets are sold at 4 p.m. On Sunday, the cathedral is only open for worship.
Admission: The price includes entry to the cathedral floor, crypt, and the three galleries in the dome. Admission also includes multimedia guides and guided tours for individuals and family visitors. Adults: £16.00 Students & Seniors: £14.00 Children 6-17: £7.00 Family ticket (2 adults + 2 children under 17): £39.00 Book your tickets online here.
Telephone: For questions about sightseeing at St Paul’s Cathedral, contact the Admissions Department at +44 020 7246 8357.

Inspired by the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, I’ve decided this week’s featured cemetery should be St. Paul’s Cathedral. (Thatcher will be privately cremated and buried by her family elsewhere, but her funeral was celebrated at St. Paul’s.)

Glorious St. Paul’s is the Cathedral of the Diocese of London, which consists of five areas: Willesden, Edmonton, Stepney, London, and Kensington. A cathedral is the seat of the bishop; in this case, the bishop of London. Westminster Abbey, on the other hand, is lead by a Dean.

The original church dedicated to St. Paul the Evangelist was founded on Ludgate Hill, the highest point in London, in 604. Several churches were built on the same site after catastrophic fires, to be replaced by the medieval cathedral that boasted the tallest spire in the world and some amazing stained glass. That building was under renovation in the 17th century when yet another fire destroyed it.

St Paul Anne sun001The current St. Paul’s was built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Full of light and air and crowned with luminous gold mosaics of angels, St. Paul’s is magnificent in a way that most churches – even St. Peter’s in Rome – are not. It’s well worth a visit, even if you don’t go underground to visit the dead people.

The crypt beneath the sanctuary is the cathedral’s foremost burial place. At its heart stands Nelson’s Tomb. Admiral Horatio Nelson died in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar and was buried in St. Paul’s crypt after a state funeral. He was laid in a coffin made from the timber of a French ship called L’Orient, which he’d defeated in the Battle of the Nile. The black marble sarcophagus that adorns his tomb was originally made for Cardinal Wolsey, Lord Chancellor during the reign of Henry VIII in the early 16th century. Wolsey fell from favor after he couldn’t secure papal permission for Henry to marry Anne Boleyn, so his sarcophagus remained unused at Windsor until a suitable occupant could be found. Atop the monument sits Nelson’s viscount coronet.

Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. He rests in a casket made of Cornish granite. The banners around Wellington’s tomb were made for his funeral procession. There had been one for Prussia, but it was removed during World War I and never reinstated.

Vintage postcard of the crypt at St. Paul's, showing Wren's tomb on the left.

Vintage postcard of the crypt at St. Paul’s, showing Wren’s tomb on the left.

The architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren, is buried at the east end of the crypt. His tomb is marked by a simple stone and is surrounded by memorials to his family, to Robert Hooke (Wren’s associate), and to the masons and other colleagues who worked on the building. The Latin epitaph above his tomb, written by his son says, “Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you.”

The crypt contains many other tombs and memorials for artists, scientists, and musicians. They include the Pre-Raphaelite painters William Holman Hunt and Sir John Everett Millais; scientist Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin; composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan); and the sculptor Henry Moore.

The royalty buried at St. Paul’s stretches back to the earliest days of Anglo-Saxon England. Sebbi, King of the East Saxons before he became a saint in the 7th century, was buried at Old Paul’s. His black stone sarcophagus was destroyed by the London Fire in 1666. Also buried at Old St. Paul’s was Ethelred the Unready, who died on April 23, 1016. During his reign, the Vikings attacked England repeatedly. Ethelred tried to buy safety by paying tribute. When the agreement was broken, he ordered the slaughter of all Danes in England. His tomb was also destroyed during the fire.

Like Westminster Abbey, the crypt of the cathedral contains cenotaphs to the memories of those buried elsewhere. Among them are author William Blake, who died in obscurity and was buried in Bunhill Fields Burying Ground, where his grave is now lost; Florence Nightingale, who chose to be buried with her parents in St. Margaret’s Churchyard at East Wellow in Hampshire; and T. E. Lawrence, better known to us as Lawrence of Arabia. He’s buried in the Anglo-Saxon church of St Martin, Wareham in Dorset.

Useful links:
St. Paul’s homepage

Lovely photos inside St. Paul’s

Architectural details at St. Paul’s

Virtual tours of St. Paul’s

National Geographic’s short video tour

CNN’s report on Thatcher’s funeral

Books I’ve reviewed that reference St. Paul’s Cathedral:

London Cemeteries

Who Lies Where: A Guide to Famous Graves

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

View all my reviews on Goodreads.