On a cold rainy day last month, I visited Highgate Cemetery on a whim. Living relatively nearby, it seemed like a good reason to go outside on a day when I would otherwise have not done so. I took a guided tour by a volunteer guide who regaled us with fascinating tidbits of history. Divided into two parts, east and west, Highgate Cemetery is one of the great monuments of London. It is Grade I listed by English Heritage.
Prior to the early 19th century, all of London’s dead were buried in local parish churchyards. As the population grow, this method lead to overcrowding and unhygienic disposal of corpses. In 1832, a Parliamentary encouraged the creation of private cemeteries in the outskirts of the city. Eventually seven such cemeteries were built of which Highgate was one. The term Magnificent Seven was given to the Victorian cemeteries in the 1980’s by an architectural historian.
Highgate was opened in 1839 and soon became a fashionable place to visit. Set in the beautiful countryside, the Victorians would make day trips to the cemetery to visit their dead relatives and picnic in the grounds. Highgate cemetery now has over 170,000 people in 50,000+ graves.
The most famous person buried in Highgate Cemetery is Karl Marx. I thought his tomb was one of the less attractive ones. The giant head looming over everything is, in fact, a bit disconcerting.
I thought the Victorian tombs were beautiful, especially in the sombre light of the grey day. Notable people who are buried here include: Henry Gray, the author of Gray’s Anatomy, Charles Cruft, the founder of the Crufts Dog Show, Christina Rossetti, poet, and the parents and wife of Charles Dickens.
The Egyptian Avenue was created by the Victorians because interest in Ancient Egypt was very fashionable at the time. It’s main feature is a giant cedar of Lebanon tree which had been in the manor grounds from which the land was purchased.
I was surprised to learn that the cemetery still accepts corpses for burial. With the changing demographics of North London, it has become popular with the Russians. I saw the tomb for Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian who was poisoned using polonium in 2006 in what is widely believed to be a Russian-government ordered execution.
You can book tours online for Highgate Cemetery directly at their website. I really enjoyed my visit which was fascinating and educational thanks to the excellent guide/volunteer who really knew his stuff.