I have a morbid fascination with cemeteries….which is not really that strange depending on your point of view and how well you know me. I find them extremely intriguing, mysterious, historical, peaceful, and also a little intimidating. I do believe in life after death so I also find cemeteries considerably sacred as well. I decided to add photographs and information about some of the cemeteries I’ve been fortunate to visit from around the world to my site. I hope you will find my cemetery posts interesting, educational, and fun to read.
A Brief History: Starting in the 7th century, European burial was under the control of the church and could only take place on consecrated, or sacred ground. Although practices varied, bodies were usually buried in a mass grave until they had decomposed. The bones were then exhumed and stored in ossuaries along cemetery boarders or under church floor slabs.
As expected, it soon became nearly impossible for the churchyards to hold the bodies of the dead as towns and as cities swelled in population during the 1700’s, a chronic shortage of burial space began to develop. The first solution was simply to pack the coffins more closely together. Later, additional dirt was added to the cemetery so coffins could be stacked atop one another to the extent that some graveyards rose twenty feet or more above that of the church floor! Another solution was to grant only limited occupation of a grave site. However, it actually got to the point that occupancy of a plot was measured in only days, or even hours, before the coffin was removed and another was put in its place.
It became impossible for the churchyards to hold the dead and by the middle 1700’s the situation had reached crisis proportions in France. Dirt and stone walls had been added around the graveyards in an attempt to hold back the bodies but they often collapsed, leaving human remains scattered about the streets of Paris. The French government took action in 1786 and moved all of the bodies from their main cemetery and transported them to catacombs that had been carved beneath the southern part of their city.
Paris set the standard, and America followed, but London was slow to adopt the new ways, with the movement only driven by dissenters and public health concerns. In the first 50 years of the 19th century the population of London more than doubled from 1 million to 2.3 million. The small parish churchyards were rapidly becoming dangerously overcrowded, and decaying human matter was infiltrating the water supply and causing epidemics. The risk to public health came from the water the people drank as in many cases, the springs for the drinking supply tracked right through the graveyards. This issue became particularly acute after the cholera epidemic of 1831, which killed 52,000 people in Britain alone, putting unprecedented pressure on the country’s burial capacity. Concerns were also raised regarding the potential public health hazard arising from the inhalation of gases generated from human putrefaction under the then prevailing miasma theory of disease. Finally in 1832, British Parliament acknowledged the need for the establishment of large municipal cemeteries and encouraged their construction outside of London. The same bill also closed all inner London churchyards to new deposits. The Magnificent Seven, seven large garden cemeteries around London, were established in the following decade, starting with Kensal Green in 1832.
Highgate Cemetery – London, England, UK
From central London, a short tube ride and brief walk uphill will bring you to the gates of Highgate Cemetery. The Victorian cemetery of Highgate did not start out as a cemetery. In the late 1600s, the grounds were part of an estate owned by Sir William Ashhurst, who had built his home on the outskirts of a small, isolated hilltop community called Highgate. By 1836, the mansion had been sold, demolished, and then replaced by a church. The grounds themselves were turned into a cemetery that was consecrated in 1839.
For years, Highgate was a fashionable and desirable place to be buried, but as the decades passed, hard times came to the cemetery. The owners steadily lost money and the monuments, statues, crypts, and markers soon became covered with undergrowth and began to fall into disrepair.
By the end of World War II, which saw an occasional German bomb landing on the burial ground, the deterioration of the cemetery was out of control as stone angels crumbled and graves were ravaged and lost by weather and time. As the cemetery continued to fall, trees and dense foliage grew throughout the graves, uprooting headstones and giving the place the look of a lost city.
Highgate remained in that state until the Friends of Highgate Cemetery took over the task of restoration in 1981 and cleared paths while allowing nature to maintain it’s predominant hold on the cemetery.
Highgate is divided by the deserted Swain street into the East and West Cemeteries, both requiring modest entrance fees. The West Cemetery is only accessible via a guided tour to protect the extensive Victorian collection of mausoleums and gravestones.
To allow the time deserved to properly experience both East and West Cemeteries, we concentrated our time in the East Cemetery during our first visit to Highgate. Visiting the East Cemetery is an experience in tranquility and calm amid the chaos of the crowded tombstones. The grounds remain a haven for birds and small animals and are full of trees, shrubbery, and wildflowers, most of which have been left to have to grow without human influence.
Perhaps the most famous person buried in East Highgate Cemetery is Karl Marx. Other notables include famous authors, pop artists, and several members of the Charles Dickens family.
Highgate Cemetery continues to hold a fascination for visitors, including horror film makers, ghost hunters, and just people like me, who are held captive by the mystery, beauty, and serenity of cemeteries. I look forward to a return visit to Highgate to visit the West Cemetery and hopefully, revisit the East side as well.