If you want to mix it with Marx or chew the fat with Foot, Highgate Cemetery‘s the place. But there‘s more to it than just radical political icons…
The disembodied head of Karl Marx glares sternly into the distance; the irony of his presence here, in the country’s most expensive graveyard, does not appear to bother him. Highgate Cemetery won’t discuss the current cost of a burial plot – not with journalists, anyway – but a cursory glance at Google reveals prices upwards of £3,000. This hasn’t stopped generations of lefties from all over the world, most recently the writer and campaigner Paul Foot, from being interred as near to Marx’s monument as possible, forming a little of huddle of radicals and revolutionaries around their long-dead inspiration. But part of the charm of the place is the higgledy-piggledly layout, and there’s nothing nearly as organised as a ‘communists corner’. Just opposite Marx, in an area bristling with carved exhortations to the proletariat, you’ll find a contented stone cat on a cushion, above the words ‘The beautiful cat endures’. It meant something to Anna Clare Bootle, whoever she was.
Alexander Litvinenko is buried here somewhere too, in a lead coffin to stop his radioactive remains from harming anybody else. And then there is the arty set: Ralph Richardson, Max Wall, the founder of the Notting Hill Carnival Claudia Jones, and painters including Joseph Wolf, George Richmond and Sir Sidney Robert Nolan. You can collect a map from the office and hunt down these graves yourself, since the East Cemetery is open to the public for a nominal donation of £2. Or, for this summer only, you can take a guided tour round some of the highlights of this 37-acre site.
The tours are run by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, a charitable organisation responsible for the upkeep of both the eastern site and the more fragile West Cemetery, which is closed to the public unless you take a tour.
In the post-War period, Highgate was left to fend for itself, and many of the monuments fell into ruin. Now, with the Friends to look after them, and with listed status both for the cemeteries themselves and for numerous individual structures inside them, they achieve a harmonious balance between nature and stone.
It’s important to note that the Eastern Cemetery tours are occasional – they happen around twice a month – and may not be continued if they prove to be too disruptive, or unpopular. If you do take the opportunity to sample one, you’ll be given a potted history of the place, a tour of some of its most famous residents, and an insight into its ecology. This last point is increasingly important – the cemeteries are as much a haven for wildlife as a resting place for human remains, and several rare species flourish there thanks to the benign neglect of centuries.
The Western Cemetery, which opened first in 1839, is the more glamourous of the two sites, with its grand sweeps of mausoleums known as the Circle of Lebanon and the Egyptian Walk. But the Eastern half, which was added in 1854, has plenty of atmosphere too, particularly if you explore the minor pathways where weathered tombs subside gently under a dark canopy of trees, and ivy climbs obligingly around smug-faced stone angels to play out the perfect graveyard cliché.
In fact, without knowing it, you may have had your assumptions about what a graveyard should look like formed by Highgate, which has been much filmed and photographed, and used as a kind of visual shorthand for the gothic sensibility. Indeed, though most visitors now are tourists or historically minded Londoners, over the years there have been plenty of people keen to stir up ghosts and ghouls. There was even supposed to be a Highgate Vampire at one point – a tall dark figure with hypnotic red eyes which caused a lot of excitement in the early 1970s but has supposedly since been exorcised.
Yet it’s not a spooky location at all. Far from teeming with the tormented undead, it’s a place crammed with love. The Bible verses and little poems carved on the headstones may be corny, but they’re heartfelt. The spaces that grieving spouses leave for their own future funerals speak of such longing to be reunited, corporeally if not in an afterlife, that it’s impossible not to be touched by them. And some of the tributes – the references to football or gardens, or the simple epitaph, ‘Stylish to the end’ that summed up the life of one 86-year-old Londoner – give a wonderful insight into the personalities of these people. Perhaps the best reason to visit the Eastern Cemetery rather than the Western is that it’s still open to new burials. Its deathscape is also a wonderful snapshot of life.
Highgate Cemetery, Swains Lane, NW6 (020 8340 1834/www.highgate-cemetery.org) Archway tube. Tours of the Eastern Cemetery cost £5.
- Add your comment to this feature