Oof, I don’t know where to start with this beautiful place – yes, yes I just used the word beautiful to describe a cemetery. You’re thinking I must be mad, but give me chance to sway you. I should start at the beginning and in a way, explain myself.
I’ve always been drawn to the darker, more macabre things of history. I love reading about the more gruesome parts of history, especially anything to do with the concept of death and how people from different cultures or time periods honoured their dead. With this in mind, when I first came across the site Atlas Obscura I instantly fell in love but when I came across the cemeteries, specifically London’s Magnificent Seven it was like I could hear the angels singing to me (metaphorically).
Now this was all a few years ago, before even Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (filmed there) came out and it plucked a bit more interest. Highgate along with so many other places in London, had slipped off our radar for a while. We kept saying we needed to do more days out in London but for some reason or another, time slipped by and nothing happened. Until November when bearded boyfriend booked a day off work and we were soon on the train to Highgate, ready to explore every inch of it.
We booked ourselves on a tour of the West Cemetery but got there a little early to explore the East Cemetery, where we knew Karl Marx was waiting for us. While this part of the cemetery wasn’t as impressive as West Cemetery it was still impressive and I think we definitely made the right decision by heading here first.
East Cemetery was simply a sea of headstones and sculptures mixed with nature taking over but on a scale that I’d never seen before, even in photography. Like the West Cemetery, the east is laid out with pathways as well as still having the older, original pathways winding between graves; rippling up and rotting in areas from age. The majority of these were camouflaged in ivy and other foliage with only a danger sign to warn of their presence. I mention these pathways as even the path land was utilised, being used as common graves and marked with a simple wooden cross.
The East Cemetery was added as an expansion of the West in 1854, which then formed the East and West labels. The road dividing the two sites became an issue with the chapels being in the gatehouse on the West site. The victorians however, found a dignified way to get around this and transferred the coffins after funerals through an underground tunnel using a hydraulic lift that was built in 1855. This has since gone.
Among the many at East Cemetery, there are some more well-known names. One of the most famous is Karl Marx, the philosopher and socialist whose body was exhumed from his original place and moved by the communist party in 1954. You can still find him in that same spot, where you’ll also see his bronze bust along with his words in gilded lettering ‘Workers of all lands unite‘ and ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – the point however is to change it‘. What also struck me about Marx’s marble plinth was how it was still adorned with flowers from his admirers today, and how many were visiting there just for him. It’s also the resting place for Mary Ann Evans, more commonly known under her male writing name George Eliot. She’s best known for her classic novel Middlemarch as well as her unconventional home life of living with her partner for over twenty years while he was still married to another woman before moving on to marry a man twenty years younger than her –such scandal! Some other famous names include the civil rights campaigner Claudia Jones who fought against imperialism and racism throughout her life, and Malcolm McLaren who aptly has the engraving of his own words ‘Better a spectacular failure, than a benign success‘.
I think what is worth noting is that of the original ‘Magnificent Seven‘ cemeteries, Highgate is the only one owned and organised by a charity, while the rest have all been taken over by local councils. While it’s a great thing for all of these sites to still be around and accessible to the public, I wanted to highlight this fact about Highgate because as much as it is a bit more of an alternative ‘attraction’, it’s through their tours and admission that this site is maintained; and can ultimately remain open to the public.
I would recommend this to pretty much anyone. As I’ve said, at face value it does sound like an odd day out and some would say a pretty morbid thing to do but it was truly fascinating. Even my own mother (whose ideal day out is at the shopping centre or even zoo) found it interesting as I raved about our tour there. I found the whole experience so fascinating and will happily talk about this place for hours to whoever will listen to me.
I do have a post coming on the West Cemetery – a much longer, detailed post so brace yourself and stay tuned for that!.
Cheerio for now!