In Highgate Cemetery

Yesterday, on New Year’s Eve day, my sons and I visited Highgate Cemetery. What better way to ring out the old than a stroll through this gorgeous, Gothic graveyard? We went to the western cemetery, which is available for tours by appointment only. (The eastern cemetery, just across the road, can be visited without a guide.) I had wanted to visit the cemetery for years, but every time I turned up it was either closed, I was too early or too late for the next tour or, if I was on time, I was with my daughter, who is too young to be allowed in (because of the slippery terrain). This time, though, I was in luck. And the weather way perfect: cold, grey and damp.

Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 in response to a lack of burial spaces in London proper. At that time, Highgate was a sleepy little village in the countryside just outside London. Now, it’s a 20-minute Tube journey from the center of the city. Need for cemetery space was so acute that the Cemetery opened another section, the eastern part, in 1854. Coincidentally, Highgate Cemetery was designed by an architect named Stephen Geary, who is buried there.

The Cemetery is situated on a hillside overlooking London, at the foot of St. Michael’s Church, where the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is buried. (Coleridge was a great fan of aphorisms, by the way. “Exclusively of the abstract sciences, the largest and worthiest portion of our knowledge consists of aphorisms, and the greatest and best of men is but an aphorist,” he wrote. “Truths, of all others the most awful and interesting, are too often considered as so true that they lose all the power of truth, and lie bed–ridden in the dormitory of the soul, side by side with the most despised and exploded errors. There is one way of giving freshness and importance to the most commonplace maxims—that of reflecting on them in direct reference to our own state and conduct, to our own past and future being.”) When the Cemetery first opened, the hillside was bare and the graves sparse. Today, it is densely overgrown with trees and shrubbery, a haven for birds and small mammals. And graves are crowded into every available space. The most recent interment is that of Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian recently poisoned with polonium-210. Other notable graves include those of Karl Marx and novelist George Eliot (in the eastern part) and Charles Cruft, founder of the Crufts dog shows, and Jacob Bronowski, scientist and author of The Ascent of Man (in the western part).

Until the early 1980s, the Cemetery was in a state of extreme dilapidation and decay. It was a favorite target of vandals and vampire hunters, and in the 1960s was used as a set for many Hammer horror movies. Since then, though, security has been vastly improved and many of the graves and monuments have been rescued from further destruction. But, partly as a conscious decision and partly due to lack of funds, the Cemetery has not restored the site to its original state. Instead, restoration has focused on preserving the architecture rather than making it look like new again. As a result, walking through the Cemetery is an incredibly vivid experience. Monuments are in various stages of disrepair; brambles and ivy cover many of the graves; fallen columns litter the ground. The Cemetery is not neatly kempt and manicured. It’s sprawling, mysterious and marvelous; everything you would expect an old, magnificent graveyard to be.

The architectural highlights are the Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon, pictures of which can be seen on this Wikipedia page. Coming upon these monuments in the grey, twilit drizzle of a winter late-afternoon in London is like stumbling on some lost Aztec temple in the jungle. Dark and overgrown by bushes and Yew trees, the Avenue looks like the entrance to some magnificent city, or perhaps the way into an unknown pyramid. At the other end of the lane is the Circle of Lebanon, a ring of mausoleums crowned with a 300-year-old cedar in the grass plot above the stones. The whole was designed with the mid-19th century fad for all things Egyptian in mind. An echo of this style can be seen in the Egyptian Room at Harrods.

Highgate Cemetery is, in the best sense of the word, a haunting place: Its beauty and serenity stay with you long after you have passed once again through the gates, back into the land of the living.