If you could time-travel back to London in, say, the mid-1850s, you might find yourself strolling in Highgate Cemetery, taking in what had become a cutting-edge showpiece of the Victorian sensibility.
It was a place to see and be seen, so occasionally you might have to edge past well-bred ladies showing off their fashionable threads amid the dark Romanticism that energised the era. Decked throughout in the reigning symbols of grief and decay, Highgate Cemetery, which opened in 1839, represented the zenith of nineteenth-century landscape design and funerary architecture, the latter clearly influenced by recent archaeological discoveries in Egypt and Mesopotamia. As such, it increasingly became the final resting place of choice for England’s status-conscious rich and famous, as well as for its eccentrics.
Located on London’s northern heights, the cemetery’s prim, trim and pristine footpaths, shrubbery and trees were in its heyday tended by a staff of 28 gardeners. Now, in contrast, it is three decades into a rescue mission steered by a non-profit organisation that managed to snatch the whole wondrous thing from the jaws of financial ruin and near-irreversible demise. Despite earlier years of neglect, its allure persists, helped along by the fact that Karl Marx and George Eliot, as well as scores of other notables, are buried here.
Visitors generally first gravitate to the cemetery’s older, more ostentatiously Victorian, western half. (An eastern side was added in 1854, doubling the size to 37 acres.) Here, the trees and vegetation threaten to overrun the place. When moisture slicks the winding gravel passageways, the going can be difficult.
Volunteer staff of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery (FOHC), the charity that has overseen the grounds since 1975, conduct regular tours of the western sector. Entry to that half is limited to tour groups, both to help ensure safety and to protect against vandalism. Today the FOHC characterize the cemetery as an active burial ground within the framework of managed woodland, and plough whatever money the cemetery generates back in to refurbishing and embellishing it.
Early on in any tour, burial places, like that of Sir Loftus Otway, a British cavalry commander, will as often as not be pointed out to illustrate various symbols the Victorians utilised in cemetery ornamentation. In Otway’s case, it is the inverted canons that dot the perimeter of his gravesite, set in the military formation of a phalanx. Among symbols, the more ubiquitous include broken pillars, signifying a life cut short; urns partially draped, to allow an opening for the soul to ascend to Heaven; the wreath, marking victory over death; and the lamb, an embodiment of innocence, the standard at the grave of a child.
Walking on, twigs snapping under your feet, the majestic gateway to the Egyptian Avenue suddenly comes into view, heightening sensations of a bygone era. The entranceway was modelled on the Valley of the Kings and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and is hedged by towering obelisks. You enter the wrought-iron gate under a pharaonic arch, and begin an incremental ascent. There is the squeak of the door closing behind you, and then the heavy thud. Sixteen catacombs line both sides of the Avenue. Each of the sepulchers comprises a family vault of a dozen coffins set on shelves. The vaults’ cast-iron doors bear embossed inverted torches, marking the fire of life extinguished.
The Avenue leads up to the Circle of Lebanon, and together they comprise the focal point of a necropolis, or city of the dead.
The Circle is a kind of round canal dug from the high ground north of the Avenue. Catacombs were built against the walls of the inner circle, and a magnificent cedar tree, now about 300 years old, remains situated at the Circle’s centre. These family vaults were constructed first, in the Egyptian-themed Gothic Revival style, just prior to the Avenue itself. A few years after the cemetery opened, a second set of catacombs was added along the Circle’s outer wall.
Via a stone stairway you ascend to a terrace of more catacombs. Nearby is the stately mausoleum of Julius Beer, a financial and media magnate. Beer had the mausoleum built in memory of his daughter Ada, who died at the age of eight, and modelled it on the original mausoleum of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus, which was one of the Wonders of the Ancient World. Through glass slits in the doors you can see a blue-and-gold mosaic ceiling and a relief sculpture of an angel carrying a child to Heaven.
Highgate and similar cemeteries were the product of a radical reform movement. Graveyards in eighteenth-century England were overcrowded, body snatchers active and bones sometimes jutted from yawning graves. The Victorians revolted against this, and pressed for secure and hygienic resting places for their dead.
The extensive wealth that the Industrial Revolution created had expanded the middle class, which in turn began to ape the gentry. Ostentatious funeral processions – with hearses pulled by horses crowned in plumes of black ostrich feathers – and exaggerated displays of grief became the preferred norm. Anticipating this, the London Cemetery Company built Highgate Cemetery, promising its stockholders their investments would remain sound for a hundred years. The company sold rights of burial in perpetuity. But the carnage of the first world war quashed Romantic attitudes towards death, and by the end of the second world war, the great majority of plots had been sold, rendering the enterprise a wasting asset.
The dog had its day
Not surprisingly, some Victorians had welcomed any opportunity to thumb their noses at the pompous notions of status and self-declared worth. This is where the tombstone of Thomas Sayers, with its sculpture of a resting pet bullmastiff, comes in.
Sayers, a celebrated bare-fisted boxer, was the David Beckham of his day. His untimely death in 1865 at age 39 prompted an unofficial day of mass mourning. As his funeral procession made its way to Highgate Cemetery, fans thronged the streets and pubs closed in his honor. Directly behind Sayers’ hearse, as sole occupant of a four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage, came the pugilist’s dog – the designated official mourner. Amid a spirit of stoked iconoclasm, as one contemporary noted, thousands entered the cemetery “playing leap-frog with every sepulchral monument of a convenient height that stood in their way”. The dog and other outsiders had their day.
The George Eliot (1819-80) gravestone – a modest grey obelisk – is situated halfway up a hill of dense overgrowth, just before Karl Marx. Her partner of nearly 25 years, novelist George Henry Lewes, who died in 1878, is buried nearby and largely accounts for her choice of burial site. Her grave is in an area reserved for dissenters, or non-Anglicans.
George Eliot, one of the greatest of English novelists, whose Middlemarch and other works are still much loved, was born Mary Ann (later Marian) Evans, and adopted her pseudonym “George” in affectionate regard for Lewes, who had helped her gain publication in the exclusionary male-dominated literary world of their time. Her possibility of burial in Westminster Abbey had been ruled out due to her rejection of Christianity and the fact that her relationship with Lewes, however monogamous, occurred in the context of their failure to marry.
The tombstone of Marx (1818-83) consists of an imposing marble bust atop a large block of Cornish granite bearing the inscription “Workers of all lands unite”. Whenever I catch sight of the tomb, I’m reminded of the 1966 film Morgan. That flick created cult status for David Warner, who played an endearing eccentric. In the scene filmed at the cemetery, Warner sweeps his ageing mother upon his shoulders and trots her around the Marx gravestone in an over-the-top celebration of their working-class heritage.
Marx had arrived in London in 1849 as a German émigré and took up permanent residence there. He last lived in Kentish Town, in north London, not far from Highgate Cemetery. Marx had originally been buried in a far corner of the cemetery, some 100 yards from the current site, in the same grave as his wife Jenny, whose death had preceded his by 15 months. That grave was topped by a simple ground-level plaque that recorded their birth and death dates. But as the grave increasingly became a pilgrimage site, with visitors complaining of difficulties in locating it, the British Communist Party in the mid-1950s re-interred the remains of Marx and his extended family in a more prominent setting. The old gravestone was incorporated into the face of the new monument, designed by Lawrence Bradshaw.
In the last few decades, a number of leading international reformers and revolutionaries have chosen to be buried in the vicinity of Marx’s grave.
Just across the path from Marx is the impressive flat gravestone of Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an evolutionary biologist and free-market proponent. The two would not have seen eye to eye in their lifetimes, but in death they remain fixed in each other’s sights. This eastern sector arguably contains the wider range of personages, if you add in people like Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Sir Ralph Richardson, the actor.
Burials are ongoing, though the eastern half has the greater selection of available plots. One newcomer is Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian dissident turned critic who was murdered in London by poisoning in 2006. All told, some 170,000 people are now buried here.
Highgate Cemetery remains a kind of masked ball of treasures. Increasingly it’s becoming a wildlife sanctuary, and the place continues to live on in the imagination.
ROGER GAESS is a journalist and photographer (www.rogergaess.com) based in London and New York.
This article appears in the July edition of this excellent monthly, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.