Highgate Cemetery is an ironically living (as nature is trying to reclaim it) monument to Victorian notions of death and the lives of people who bought into that fantasy. It’s just a fifteen-minute walk from where I live in London, and it’s remarkable. It’s beautiful and peaceful, and it puts you face to face with your own mortality and our monumental desire to fight death by leaving something solid behind.
There are two parts to the cemetery (east and west,) and the west cemetery is accessible only by guided tour. It’s a mystical place, where natural beauty buts up against crumbling tombstones and heartfelt final words carved for long-dead children. The cemetery is cared for volunteers and receives no government funding. Graves are cared for by families, but most of the graves no longer have readily available descendants to care for them. Perhaps because of that, it seems a sleepy place.
There are catacombs with coffins exposed, where you can read the dates (1848 on one) and names written in ink on labels on their ends. There is Egyptian architecture designed to catch a trend and be a profit booster in its day. There is a promenade, where once upon a time (and shorter trees,) you could stroll on a Sunday and see all the way to central London–one of the few respectable “out in the world” activities for a single lady.
It’s a place full of treasures, and I can’t stop thinking about the images I saw there.
Ultimately, it’s a sobering place in a city that (for the tourist) is often full of pageantry and pomp and character that’s a bit empty underneath. This place is full under that veneer.
Admission to the West Cemetery is by tour only and costs 7 pounds. Book in advance on the weekdays (1:45 p.m. tour) and just turn up on weekends (tours at least hourly from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.) Details here.