Highgate Cemetery in London is perhaps one of the most curious and unique sights in the whole of the city. It is certainly one that I have wanted to visit myself for a long time. As I live so far away from London, it’s still on the list for places to go at some point in the future. For those of you unfamiliar with the cemetery, you may be asking why a place of burial would be a good place to visit. It is actually well known for its unique architecture, most notably the Circle of Lebanon, a circle of burial vaults designed in the style of classical architecture. Whilst the cemetery now boasts some renown, I only discovered recently how the very existence of this amazing place full of history and notable people was once under threat.
During the early part of the nineteenth century, London’s population was booming, sadly so too was its death rate. The inner-city plots allocated for burials were unable to cope with the sheer numbers of burials needed. This meant that bodies were very much placed into the same graves as strangers, and even given quick lime to help them decompose quicker to make room for future burials! For public health reasons, the authorities decided new and better provisions needed to be made. Many new out of city places were brought, including the site that would become Highgate Cemetery. Initially, 17 acres of land, costing £3,500 (or around £211,000 in today’s money) were brought in 1836, with the cemetery officially opening three years later.
People of all classes were buried at the cemetery, but it is the richer plots for which the cemetery became well-known for. Architecture based on Gothic, Egyptian and Classical architecture all became a draw for people, making it a unique place to be buried. The wealthy competed for more elaborate grave monuments to add to the existing architecture of the chapels and vaults. This competition certainly encouraged others to be buried at the site. In total, there are around 850 notable people buried there, ranging from author, George Eliot, Karl Marx, and Elizabeth Siddal, a model for many famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Karl Marx’s grave at the cemetery is said to be the most visited grave in London. My favourite story is of bare-knuckle fighter, Tom Sayers, who had the biggest funeral held at the cemetery, possibly even in the whole of London, which was attended by 10,000 people, with his beloved dog as the chief mourner. Sayers was popular because he was known to fight opponents who were bigger than himself, but only ever lost one fight in his career.
For many years, the cemetery was the place to be buried and it had to be extended by another 20 acres in 1856. This popularity wasn’t to last those as it began to decline following the First World War. Many of the gardeners who worked there were called up to fight, leaving the site looking a bit shabby. From then on, a slow decline in popularity occurred until 1975, when The Friends of Highgate Cemetery was established to restore and maintain the site. Now the cemetery is known to attract not just tourists, but also all kinds of wildlife.
It has become a place of historic interest, but also an active public space. Talks, tours and other events are often used to cater for the needs of visitors, giving it new meaning and life, just those buried there, but those living who are connected to the place, whether they be members of staff, the Friends group that run it, local, and of course the visitors. The most recent high profile burial at Highgate is that of George Michael who sadly died in 2017. Whilst his death is still very current and still private, I hope that with time, he too will come to be looked on with the same reverence that is given to the older burials in the cemetery.
 Johnson, B., ‘Highgate Cemetery’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Highgate-Cemetery/
 Mader, M., ‘Public Events at a Historic-Religious Site’, in Mader, M., Saviello, A. and Scolari, B. (eds), Highgate Cemetery: Image Practices in Past and Present (Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft Mbh & Co, 2020), p. 180.