The Victorian Valhalla: Highgate Cemetery
Cimetiere (french) - from the Greek word meaning a place to sleep
are mystical places of beauty. Somewhere to momentarily escape our modern world and wander the entangled paths between the tombs of the long forgotten to try to imagine the lives of those buried beneath the ground we walk on and of an era which treated death in a very different fashion to that of today.
Death today is something that is private hidden from the outside world where possible. This was far from the case during the Victorian Era. Mourning garb announced to the world the death of someone close to you; funerals were elaborate processions that cost large sums of money and cemeteries were, aside from their obvious purpose, a place to stroll and to be enjoyed for their quiet beauty.
Up until the beginning of the 1800s, death in Europe meant interment in a church graveyard. As populations increased and consequently, the number of dead, these tiny graveyards became more than over taxed by the abundance of corpses so many so that older ones were often exhumed to accommodate the newly deceased. Obviously, there was a great need to overcome this problem and in Paris in 1804, the first private cemetery was created Père Lachais. Thirty years later, England acquired its first private cemetery in 1833. In 1839, Highgates West Cemetery was consecrated. Six days after its consecration Highgate received its first customer Elizabeth Jackson, a 36 year old spinster of Golden Square, Soho.
As the years progressed, so did the popularity of Highgate. It soon became the fashionable place to be buried in London during the Victorian era. The cemeterys beautifully landscaped grounds and stunning Gothic architecture made it not only a desirable place to be buried, but also attracted many tourists of the day who came to stroll and admire the gardens along with the graceful and grand statuary. In 1854 owing to both its success and popularity, a second section of Highgate, The East Cemetery, was opened.
Part of the Victorian ceremony of death involved the building of incredibly elaborate tombs and mausoleums to house their dead, of which Highgate has many wonderful examples. The West Cemetery houses two of the most spectacular examples of these the Lebanon Circle and the Egyptian Avenue.
The Lebanon Circle is a sunken corridor built around a large Lebanese Cedar. Initially, vaults were built into the innermost wall; the outmost wall vaults were added fifty years later as demand required. By contrast the Egyptian Avenue is a straight corridor. At either side of the entrances stand impressive Egyptian Papyrus style columns topped with stylized Egyptian entablature. Vaults line either side of the corridor, their iron doors adorned with examples of Victorian funerary symbolism. Both of these examples, as with many others throughout the cemetery were built and then sold to affluent families of the day.
Large privately built mausoleums also can be found throughout the cemetery. Undoubtedly the largest of these is that of Julius Beer and his family. Julius Beer was a wealthy financier and newspaper baron of the day. He built a grand mausoleum based on one the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World the tomb of the Greek King Mausolus, from which the word mausoleum was derived.
During the latter part of the Victorian era, family vaults became less fashionable and the trend tended more towards individual graves often in family groups. As you wander through Highgate today, beautiful angels and weeping figures decorating these individual graves emerge from the tumble of wild ivy and greenery which has taken over much of the cemetery. Upon observation you begin to notice several other recurring themes, inverted and extinguished torches, draped urns and broken ancient columns. The Victorians had many symbols relating to death which they incorporated into their funerary statuary. An extinguished torch represents the absence of light and hence death; a draped and empty urn attests to the soul having left the body; broken columns representing the death and ruin of the ancients before us and in turn ourselves. Victorian grave markers in the form of crosses nearly always stood on a three-stepped platform. These steps symbolized the three Victorian ideals of Faith, Hope and Charity.
Highgate Cemetery covers some thirty-seven acres of sloping land. Upon this land there are 166,800 names engraved on some 51,000 headstones. Among these thousands of names are those of many famous Victorians. Today, however, it would seem the achievements of many of these people have outlived the memory of their names. It is believed 850 notables are buried in Highgate Charles Dickens (d. 1870) and Karl Marx (d. 1883) are but two.
One of those whose name may not hold such a strong sense of recognition today is that of Thomas Sayers (d. 1865). Sayers was one of the last great bare fisted boxers and it has been said that his funeral was the largest that Highgate ever saw. 100,000 people lined the streets of London to catch a glimpse of the funeral procession and pay their last respects, while 10,000 attended the funeral itself. Upon the funeral carriage rode Sayers faithful pet Mastiff Lion, his eyes never wavering from his masters coffin for the duration of the procession. Lions loyalty so impressed Sayers mourners that they paid to erect a statue of Lion next to his masters grave so he could lay at his masters feet for eternity.
As the Victorian era came to a close upon the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, so came the gradual demise of the great Victorian cemeteries. In 1888, cremation was legalized in England, proving a less expensive alternative to burial. As cremation became more common, the need for large burial plots decreased and the large cemeteries no longer maintained the income that elaborate Victorian funeral practices had provided them. Highgate soon slipped into a long period of neglect. By 1950, the last of the cemeteries gardeners were let go and in 1975 the gates of the West Cemetery were finally chained and locked. The East Cemetery remained open but with very little maintenance. At this time The Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed and it is through their continued efforts and hard work that the cemetery is slowly recovering from these years of sad neglect.
Highgate cemetery in London is a truly beautiful example of a Victorian Cemetery. Sadly, many cemeteries of the era have been razed to accommodate more economically viable projects. Thankfully, this fate did not befall Highgate. Today for a small fee, the cemetery can still be visited and burials once again take place there. The spectacular West Cemetery is again open to the public, but only through guided tours. The East Cemetery can be visited at your leisure, no tour required. If you are planning a visit to London, an afternoon spent wandering this wild and quietly beautiful cemetery is a must.
The official website provides you with all you will need to know regarding directions, cost, hours, etc. as well as how to become a member of Friends of Highgate Cemetery.