Sunday, June 17, 2012
With a burgeoning population, high mortality rate, and inadequate burial space, London faced a crisis in the early decades of the nineteenth century over what to do with its dead. Seven large, modern cemeteries were created in the countryside around England's capital that came to be known as "The Magnificent Seven". One of these cemeteries was Highgate, in north London. The first burial was on May 26, 1839.
Funeral and burial arrangements were often extravagant during the Victorian era. Queen Victoria's deep grief after the passing of her husband, Prince Albert, set the tone for the way her subjects mourned, at a time when death was an ever-present fact of domestic life. Deathbed vigils, adherence to strict mourning rituals, mourning dress, mourning jewellery, death masks, and postmortem photography were amongst the conventions employed to help them cope. They would also build elaborate tombs and mausoleums to honour the deceased, and cemeteries were landscaped so that families could visit with departed loved ones in a pleasant garden atmosphere.
Highgate Cemetery was much admired and became a fashionable place for burials. The London Cemetery Company that ran it became so profitable that the cemetery was extended to the other side of its Swain's Lane site, creating the East and West Cemeteries connected by an underground tunnel.
The largest funeral to take place at Highgate was that of Tom Sayers, a famous bare-knuckled prize-fighter. He had over ten thousand mourners, chief amongst them, his faithful dog, Lion. Poignantly, the tomb of Tom Sayers is guarded by a stone statue of Lion (see photo above).
By the end of the nineteenth century the desire for extravagant funerals had waned, giving way to simpler burials. By 1975 the funds to maintain the cemetery had run out and the gates were closed. Later that same year, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust was set up. It acquired the freehold for both the East and West Cemeteries by 1981 and has since had responsibility for Highgate's maintenance.
There are many prominent figures buried at Highgate Cemetery, perhaps the most famous being Karl Marx. The cemetery also gained notoriety for an urban legend about a "Highgate Vampire" that purportedly haunted the site during the 1970s.
There have also been numerous fictional references to Highgate. In Bram Stoker's, Dracula, the Count's victim, Lucy Westenra, is buried in "Kingstead Cemetery", a fictionalized Highgate, where she preys on children as a vampire. Highgate is also acknowledged as the inspiration for the setting of Neil Gaiman's, The Graveyard Book.