A Dreaded Sunny Day, So I Meet You At Highgate

Nestled to the north of London, Highgate Cemetery is the final resting place of some of the world’s most prominent historical figures. Founder of socialism Karl Marx, author George Eliot (also known as Mary Ann Cross,) and physicist Michael Faraday are all buried within the confines of the enormous 37-acre cemetery. And if the big names laid to rest here aren’t enough to impress you, maybe the history behind Highgate will do the trick.

In the early 1800s, London experienced a huge population boom. With the rise of the industrial revolution people flocked to the city looking for jobs. This caused a slight problem: with the increased population came an increased death rate. Conditions were grimy, disease was running rampant, and those Londoners were dropping like flies. And here’s the kicker: they were running out of room for the dead.

Makeshift burial grounds started popping up wherever people could find room- this includes small areas between shops and even in backyards. In many cases, corpses would be wrapped in thin cloth, thrown in shallow graves, and quicklime would be thrown on them to speed up decomposition so the grave could be used again in a few months.

Can you imagine how rank that smelled?

Luckily, around 1830, the government decided that something had to be done about this growing (and festering) problem. They formed The London Cemetery Company and  hired an architect, Stephen Geary, and his team to construct a series of new cemeteries around the city called “The Magnificent Seven.” The most magnificent of which turned out to be Highgate.

Beauty does not come easy. It took three years to landscape the seventeen-acre area, fifteen of which were set aside for members of the church of England and two for dissenters, or non-members. The cemetery was dedicated to St. James in May 1839.

The most interesting about Highgate Cemetery is probably its unique landscaping and architecture. An area in the heart of the cemetery, aptly named Egyptian Avenue, presents sixteen vaults on either side of a wide avenue in a classical Egyptian style. Nearby is the Circle of Lebanon, constructed in the same architectural style, which also features a number of vaults for interment.

Over the years, Highgate Cemetery became quite the fashionable place to be buried, boasting a number of large monuments for wealthy and prominent figures. Poets, novelists, scientists, artists, and political figures all sought after Highgate as their final resting place. Karl Marx was buried there in 1883, and his grave is one of the most visited in England.

Unfortunately, with the onset of the world wars in the beginning of the 20th century, people devoted less money to funeral costs and burials. Interments at Highgate began to decline, the property became overgrown, and the London Cemetery Company disintegrated.

But fear not! You could join the greats in calling the cemetery your final resting place. Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed in 1975 to save the burial ground, and Highgate is still an operating cemetery with up to 70 internments and 30-35 plots sold each year. And if you’d like to actually see the cemetery during your time here on Earth, tours are available every day of the week and cost only a few pounds. Visit highgate-cemetery.org for more info.

Photography credit to Neil Smith via Creative Commons licensing

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