Afternoon of the living dead

It had the feel of a rain forest trek that afternoon, but this was north London and I wasn’t worrying about leeches.  Out there in the undergrowth there surely lived wild creatures, but it was the dead ones that had lured me to Highgate Cemetery.

The afternoon breezes swung the branches, fading the capital’s traffic to the distance and replacing it with birdsong.  Water dripped off the canopy of leaves onto the overgrown tombs below, where the sun drove steam back into the air.

It would never have been like this but for what now seems like an amazingly naive business decision.  From its establishment in 1836, plots were sold for a fixed payment.  Proud owners could, it seems, erect any sort of gravestone or monument on their patch.  A gaudy Egyptian corridor still looks out of place today, even in the context of the obelisks and pyramids not far away.  Disproportionate mausoleums dwarf modest plinths, overwhelming them with their opulent self-importance.  An elegant cedar crowns a subterranean circle of terraced catacombs.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century London’s population had exploded and church graveyards couldn’t cope with the increased demand.  Cremation hadn’t yet caught on: clean-living Londoners worried whether this untried idea might blow their chances of a more celestial final resting place.  Six sites encircling the capital were allocated by the powers that were, to take the strain. Businesses took off and prices for the various classes of plots soon found levels, in the same way as the property market today.  But it hadn’t been thought through.

Plots for single graves or for family sarcophagi were let in perpetuity for a single payment.  The cemetery promised to keep the area within its walls in good order.  But forever is a long time and capacity was limited.  An impressive rate of income allowed the purchase of an extension (the East Cemetery across Swains Lane Street where Karl Marx and George Eliot are buried), but space soon filled up and funds dried up.  The cemetery was forced to close in 1975.  While the gates remained shut, the grass kept growing and ivy crept up the neglected masonry.  Wild flowers populated the site and animal life moved in undisturbed.

Entry today is by group tour guided by one of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who raise funds, battle with the vegetation and educate visitors.  Highgate has its famous residents but its appeal is in the stories behind the tombs and the interpretation of their designs.  Many of the tombs have been released from nature’s stranglehold but the disorientating jungle is still in charge.  Without our guide we might never have found our way out.

It takes a lot to bring a cemetery to life.  But then Highgate has very capable friends.

Copyright Nicholas White 1999