Sunday, June 17, 2012

Highgate Cemetery


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.

The tombs, mausoleums and gravestones of this beautiful Gothic cemetery are nestled amongst a wild landscape of trees, shrubbery and flowers that have become home to birds, foxes and cats. Both sides of the cemetery are still used for burials, and tours are held to view the grounds of the older West side.

35 comments:

  1. Wow that looks amazing! I'd love to go shoot there someday.

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    1. Hi Dex,

      Yes, it's so beautiful! Highgate Cemetery and the town of Whitby are the two places that I MUST see if I get a chance to visit England again.

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  2. Highgate is beautiful, I really want to visit sometime :)

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    1. Hi Alexandriaweb,

      Well, living in the UK, you're at least geographically closer to reaching that goal than I am here in Australia. ;) Make sure you do a big, juicy post on Highgate if you do get the opportunity to go there. I can't get enough of the melancholy beauty of that place.

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  3. Emma what a fabulous post! Love the photos, love the place!

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    1. Hi Siobhan,

      Thank you! ❤ Have you ever been to Highgate Cemetery? The beauty, history, and legend that surround the place, fascinate me.

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    2. No,I haven't but next time I'm in London, it'll be one of the first places I visit. Hmmm, that makes me sound a little creepy right? haha! This place fascinates me too. I can imagine a whole ghostly community coming to life after dark....

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    3. Haha. I don't think that's creepy at all! Or perhaps it is, but the very best kind of creepy! ;) It's funny because my husband and I visited Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris and on the way we asked a Parisian storekeeper for directions. He spent at least 10 minutes attempting to convince us not to go. It was quite funny. He got so exasperated telling us that there were so many beautiful sights to see in Paris and couldn't understand why we wanted to go to a place full of dead people.

      I love the idea of a whole ghostly community coming to life after dark. They certainly have a beautiful spot to enjoy their afterlives. :)

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  4. Great post. That first picture is perfect. Jeez, could you imagine this place at night?

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    1. Hi WicKED,

      Thank you! I think Highgate has had its fair share of shenanigans over the years with people trespassing at night. The cemetery scenes in the BBC mini-series, 'Count Dracula', were filmed at Highgate, if you'd like to get a taste of what it's like in spooky darkness.

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  5. My all-time favorite... Definitely on the bucket list to see one day.

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    1. Hi Mark,

      It's on my bucket list too. Of course, I can't help but be amused by the irony of a cemetery being on our bucket lists. ;)

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  6. Arnos Vale Cemetery Bristol UK..not so well known, but as good ~

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    1. Hi JoHnny,

      Thanks for that! I'll definitely look up the Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol.

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  7. What a beautiful cemetery! I don't know why, but I got a laugh out of the "fashionable place for burials" part. I guess it's weird to think of cemeteries being fashionable. I love learning about Victorian traditions and symbolism, including their mourning rituals. There are plenty of interesting pieces of mourning jewelry on Pinterest. Perhaps you've run into some of those images. Have you had a chance to visit this cemetery in person?

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    1. Hi Justine,

      Oh, I know what you mean about "fashionable". When I was reading up on Highgate, I thought that was pretty amusing too. You start to imagine velvet ropes and bouncers at the hot, new cemetery in town. ;)

      The Victorians had such a different attitude to death than we do. It's so sad to think that it was normal for families to have to deal with children dying.

      I'll do a search on Pinterest and see what comes up in the way of mourning jewellery. I know that there are sellers on Etsy who make pieces inspired by Victorian mourning jewellery.

      No, I didn't ever get to Highgate Cemetery when I was in London, which is a big regret for me. I went to Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris though. I hope I'll get back to London one day so that I can take one of the tours of the older West Cemetery.

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  8. Wow, it's so beautiful! I wish I could go there one day:)

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    1. Hi Christel,

      Yes, I completely agree, and I've got a simmering obsession about getting there to see it in person too! :)

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  9. Fabulous post! I think highgate was also the inspiration for Her Fearful Symmetry.

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    1. Hi Jessica,

      Thank you! Yes, you're right. 'Her Fearful Symmetry' was set in and around Highgate Cemetery. Audrey Niffenegger worked there as a tour guide and her insights into the behind the scenes workings of the cemetery were actually my favourite part of that novel.

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  10. What a wonderful place ~ Would be an awesome spot for a photo shoot, picnic, midnight meeting...
    Beautuful Images

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    1. Hi Goth Clothes,

      Oh, I know! It's so perfect! I took a peek at it on Google Maps and it just looks like lush, dense woodlands from above. Barely any graves are visible at all from an aerial view. I love all the Victorian Gothic statuary in amongst wild, overgrown nature.

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  11. I love Highgate Cemetery although the tours and bits that you can no longer go to make it feel like more of a tourist attraction these days. I do recognise that they need to restore and preserve it and raise much needed funds but it has changed the feel of the place I think and that's a shame.
    The use of Highgate as the main location in Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry is really good. I think I read that she worked there for a while whilst she was researching the book. Personally, I found the ending of the book disappointing but it's set at Highgate and does have some lovely descriptions.
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Her-Fearful-Symmetry-Audrey-Niffenegger/dp/0224085611

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    1. Hi jurassicgoth,

      Oh, I can imagine that tourism has probably turned it into a bit of a graveyard theme park. Sadly, it's a double-edged sword when they need the money to fund maintenance. I remember reading that the upkeep of Highgate costs a small fortune.

      I have read 'Her Fearful Symmetry' and I completely agree with you. I didn't think much of the ending either. It felt like a different author wrote the last third of the book... or that it was ridiculously rushed to meet a deadline. As I mentioned to Jessica, the descriptions of Highgate were the highlight of the novel for me.

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    2. It is great that it's being restored and a lot of people volunteer their time but I do remember going there in the 80's and it seemed a much wilder, more magical place then although many of the gravestones were in poor repair. I am glad it's being looked after but there were whole areas that were out of bounds last time I went :-(
      I agree with you totally about Her Fearful Symmetry, it was like she lost the plot...literally!... and just randomly chucked the last chapters together in a hurry. It's a shame as the book had so much potential. The Highgate descriptions are good though aren't they :-)

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  12. How beautiful. I'd love to go on tour of that cemetery. I never heard of it but I'm surprised that I haven't.

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    1. Hi Zena,

      I'm sure you have some really beautiful gothic cemeteries in the US too. One of my favourite photographers on Etsy, Gothicrow, takes the most gorgeous pictures of American graveyards.

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  13. The pictures are beautiful and a bit eerie. I love them!

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    1. Hi Adsila,

      Yes, the foliage is so wild that I can imagine getting lost there. A friend of mine went on the tour of the West Cemetery and briefly got separated from her group. She pushed her way through some of the vegetation to find herself standing alone in front of the tombstone of someone who, coincidentally, had the same name as her. That story always lends an extra touch of eeriness to Highgate for me.

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  14. ...♥...
    On my to do list...I have such a facination with highgate
    blessings

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    1. Hi Sacred Keep,

      Yes, Highgate has such a mystique surrounding it. The more I read about it, the more I want to visit it! :)

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  15. The coolest cemetery i've ever been to was Sleepy Hollow(Tarrytown) where the Headless Horseman rests, but it doesn't even compare to Highgate. Sheer gothic brilliance. Hope I get to visit one day.

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    1. Hi Gabriel,

      I googled the Sleepy Hollow cemetery and it looks very cool! I'd never considered the idea of visiting Washington Irving's house and experiencing the history behind 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow', but "cinnamon-spiked apple cider, cemetery walks, and eerie tales of a headless horseman riding into the night" sound like fun! That will definitely be on my list of must-sees if I get to the US for a visit! Thanks for letting me know about it! :)

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  16. A post after my own heart! I found a book on eBay months ago all about the history of Tarrytown and their old traditions but it was from a seller in America and the postage was too high! I do love spooky American history and would love to know more about the town Sleepy Hollow was set in so some day I will just have to bite the bullet and pay for the damn book! Although I'm sure I could find a lot of information on-line it just doesn't compare to having you own book filled with old pictures!

    I have heard of Highgate cemetery before from a previous blogger as her and her boyfriend went on a tour there, it looks so breathtakingly beautiful. All the sweeping Gothic tombs and sleeping angels are amongst the wild trees and plants is enough to make anyone's imagination run wild. I would love to take a picnic there and just sit, admire and take in the whole atmosphere of the place! I would love even more to visit it at night by the light of an old oil lamp! Now that would be spooky!

    I have never, ever heard of Arnos Vale cemetery in Bristol before and I lived a mere hour away from Bristol for 20 years until I moved up country to live with Pyf! I'm going to be going back home to visit my family and friends next week though and my friends and I have planned a day out in Bristol on the Wednesday! If it is within walking distance of the town centre I would very much love to visit it!

    This blog post has just fuelled my excitement for our Holiday to Edinburgh this year even more! We had already planned to go to Edinburgh so I was tasked with finding a place to stay, I looked on our trusty english-country-cottages.co.uk and found Kings Stables cottage almost immediately! It just looked too perfect to be true! The building has to be at least 300 years old, Built into the wall that surrounds St.Cuthbert's Church and graveyard and set at the foot of Edinburgh Castle, the only sensible date to choose was Hallowe'en! We will literally step out the front door into the graveyard and have views of the graves from the windows and a gorgeous view up to the castle from the its little garden! We are definitely going to be having a few midnight strolls amongst the graves :D I plan on carving a few pumpkins and taking them out to the graveyard at night for some awesome photos!

    I am so very excited to be able to visit Grey Friars Bobby and the underground vaults at last!! Eeeeeeeek!!!!

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    1. Considering how much I love the movie, 'Sleepy Hollow', I can't believe I'd never thought about the idea of actually visiting Tarrytown until Gabriel mentioned the cemetery. That book on the history of Tarrytown sounds fascinating! I'm going to have to look that one up. The more I travel around Blogland, and meet all sorts of interesting people, and read all sorts of inspiring posts, the longer my "to do" and "must see" lists get. I really must get around to winning the lottery one day! ;)

      Even though I lived and worked in London for a while, I didn't get to Highgate. Something came up with Danny's work that meant we ended up leaving earlier than we expected and we just ran out of time to see everything we wanted to see. My other big regret is not getting to Whitby. I've always loved everything 'Dracula' related, so I've just got to see Whitby eventually.

      I read up about the Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol. It's interesting that both cemeteries had their first burials in 1939. I imagine there would be strong parallels in the style of landscaping, gravestones, statues and mausoleums between Arnos Vale and Highgate. I really hope you get a chance to visit when you're in Bristol.

      Your trip to Edinburgh sounds utterly AWESOME! And during Halloween too! What a perfect time to go!!! I can't wait to see the posts with your holiday photos. So envious! :D

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