| Modern * London |
Highgate Cemetery is a complete labyrinth: filled with graves, and stones, and statues, and the occasional giant head of a communist. It is a beautiful part of North London, one of the must-see places for those who have a small fortune to spend on the entrance fee. Created in 1839, its history offers a typical example of how urban societies have dealt with death, memorialised their loved ones, and used the natural environments around their city.
From the beginning of the industrial revolution, cemeteries began to fill up. The massive influx in population, the horrendous sanitary conditions, and the migration into expanding cities meant that the number of people dying was increasing at an alarming rate. This, coupled with the mysterious diseases such as Cholera which no-one quite understood how to prevent, led to existing cemeteries becoming full-to-bursting with new residents. Alongside the cramped cemeteries, people started to bury the dead in any corner of the city they could find, in between houses, in back gardens, in graves only a few feet deep; it created an environmental nightmare, with sanitation, smells, and sights of the city becoming unbearable.
The government stepped in and created seven new cemeteries in the surrounding countryside. It also created the London Cemetery Company which organised the landscaping of the burial grounds. Gothic was almost obligatory for any piece of Victorian architecture and Highgate Cemetery didn’t escape this aesthetic. The entrance and chapels of the cemetery are imposing and authoritative, and the high ground meant that it became the perfect spot for London’s wealthiest to spend eternity. The burial ground became so popular that it eventually expanded, acquiring what is now called the East Cemetery.
But even death can’t avoid the ebss and flows of fashion. Ostentatious burials went out of vogue by the turn of the century and the wealthy families of London stopped burying their loved ones in the grand Highgate cemetery. Although common graves were stacked up to try and bring in a bit of money, eventually The London Cemetery Company went bankrupt in 1960s and the grounds became overgrown and wild.
It was only 15 years later that the cemetery became a focus for conservation. To protect the graves, the buildings, and the wildlife of the grounds, a charitable organisation - The Friends of Highgate Cemetery - was formed, and the cemetery was branded an ‘environmental amenity’. Now the 168,000 people buried there are safe from future degradation; not to mention the newly planted trees, the 50 species of bird, 18 species of butterfly, rare spiders, and the colonies of city foxes known to live in this protected urban garden.
Swain's Ln, Highgate, London N6 6PJ