“So was there anybody famous?” I was telling a German friend about my recent visit to Highgate Cemetery in London. “Well, there are but we didn’t particularly look out for them, so not really.” And that’s the point about a tour around West Highgate Cemetery, it’s not about visiting graves of famous people – though there are many, some more known to the British, and some like Karl Marx to be found in the East Cemetery – it is about the architecture, history and cult of burials in the Victorian era. Or at least it was for me.
Highgate Cemetery opened in 1839 on the then outskirts of London as one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’, a range of cemeteries that was intended to help with the overflowing and therefore sometimes unpleasant smelling and looking graveyards in the city. It soon became a fashionable place for burials and to visit. The Victorians had a very distinct attitude towards death which led to some magnificent Gothic tombs and building. Every detail on a grave had a meaning, the Victorians loved double meanings and secret codes, so monuments were usually symbolic – either religious (crosses, angels), symbols of profession or symbols of death (urns, columns). It was expected that you spent as much as you could afford on grave and what was deemed fit to your social status.
We were just a group of four on our tour (sometimes it pays off to do thinks off-season) and our guide was very funny and knowledgable. Unfortunately a sleet shower cut our tour somewhat short and made my exploration of the East Cemetery quite wet, muddy and a bit uncomfortable.