There is something magical about cemeteries and people visit them for various reasons; not just because their loved ones are buried there but also because they love the atmosphere, they are interested in the history and the cultural importance.
Cemeteries are in many regards relevant when it comes to architecture, if we are interested in a certain period in the past or also if we just want to have a quiet walk and an escape from the city noise.
North London’s Highgate Cemetery is a perfect place for all those reasons. It is one of the most well-known cemeteries in the UK and it attracts many visitors.
The poet Sir John Betjeman described Highgate as Victorian Valhalla as the monuments are full of Victorian symbolism such as angels that rise from graves and the trees and ivy create a magical charm.
They form a different landscape from the scenery visitors would have seen in 1839, the year the cemetery opened.
“Most ornate Victorian cemeteries are wonderfully atmospheric and can be perceived as everything from contemplative to magical to eerie, even romantic,” Sam Perrin, historical biographer and a former tour guide at Highgate Cemetery told Artefact.
“I find it hilarious that the face of Karl Marx, the poster boy of anti-capitalism, is printed on the labels of the £10 jars of honey sold at the cemetery.”
She was a tour guide at Highgate for 12 years and has great knowledge and passion for the cemetery.
She told us that the mood of a cemetery can change dramatically depending on the season and the overwhelming sense of history inspires poets, authors, photographers, musicians and film makers to visit and feature such places in their work.
Victorian London became so overcrowded that it soon faced a massive problem: a lack of space for both the living and the dead. Thanks to an act of parliament, seven large commercial cemeteries were opened outside the city to help alleviate the problem.
Collectively known as the “Magnificent Seven”, Highgate was the third to open and was large, privately owned and designed to impress.
Highgate Cemetery is divided into two parts – East and West. East is the “younger sister” of the two and doesn’t have the same architectural grandeur boasted by the West, however it is definitely more cosmopolitan and has a cultural diversity that the West lacks.
“It’s home to more radicals, dissidents and rebels and, from a historical perspective, I find the people interred in the East far more interesting,” Perrin told us.
Highgate is a popular place that attracts many visitors – a lot of them come to see the resting places of some of the most famous residents such as Karl Marx or Michael Faraday and soon people will probably come to visit the grave of the recently deceased George Michael.
The singer had close ties with the local area and his mother is buried there – cemetery management haven’t confirmed anything yet but there is speculation that the singer will most probably be buried at Highgate.
“Will he eventually be included as one of the ‘big draws’ on the cemetery’s guided tours, just like Christina Rossetti or Michael Faraday now are?” Perrin questions.
Due to the high number of “celebrity” residents, Highgate has become very touristic that some even argue that the cemetery is at risk of becoming a “Disneyland of Death”.
“There’s no denying that Highgate is a tourist attraction. But it’s also a working, operational cemetery and grave owners need to be consulted more before the balance between cemetery and tourist trap is tipped too far in favour of the latter,” Perrin told Artefact.
“If more money is being spent on catering for tourists than it is on restoring monuments, that line has well and truly been crossed,” she added.
Karl Marx, the German philosopher, economist and revolutionary socialist whose writings formed the basis of modern international communism is one of the famous residents at Highgate. He fled to London in 1849 because of his political beliefs and settled in nearby Kentish Town.
Two years after his wife died, he was buried with her in the family plot in the east cemetery. His friend Engels took care of the funeral arrangements but the family grave was later moved to its current spot in the 1950s.
As one of the most internationally recognised ‘celebrities’ at the cemetery, Marx attracts many people to visit his grave and the cemetery is cashing in: “I find it hilarious that the face of Karl Marx, the poster boy of anti-capitalism, is printed on the labels of the £10 jars of honey sold at the cemetery. Perhaps they’re just being ironic,” Perrin said.
Aside from having famous residents some think that the main ingredient that attracts tourists are the mystical stories of a Highgate Vampire.
“These stories obviously began because of Hammer Horror films who filmed many of their Dracula films there in the 60s and 70s. Tales from the Crypt, The Body Beneath, Taste the Blood of Dracula and Dracula AD72 are some examples. These were syndicated all over the world and the cemetery landmarks, especially the vaults would have been easily recognisable,“ David Farrant told Artefact.
Farrant is President of the British Psychic and Occult Society (BPOS), which was established in 1967 to look into the cases of unexplained phenomena. He was born in an old Victorian house in Highgate, not far from the cemetery.
In the same year as it was established, the BPOS started an investigation into a tall dark spectre that had been seen by many witnesses in and around London’s Highgate.
Farrant personally thinks that the fact that the cemetery is popular because of the Highgate Vampire is not a good thing: “It encourages the literal belief in ‘blood-sucking vampires’ which most people, or most sane people, know is just pure fiction.”
Perrin shares this view: “Even if they existed, I can’t see any self-respecting vampire surviving for long in a cemetery that’s covered in wild garlic and containing thousands of crosses. Vampires belong in the fiction section for a reason.”
Whether it’s due to its haunted reputation, the ties with popular culture or the number of ‘celebrities’ buried there, Highgate is for sure an iconic and interesting place so it’s no wonder it attracts a lot of attention.
It is a fascinating insight into Victorian Britain and a peaceful oasis, just a step away from all the hassle of Central London.
Highgate Cemetery is open seven days a week from 10am – 4pm.
Address: Swains Lane, London, N6 6PJ. The nearest underground station is Archway.
All images by Lea Vitezic