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Tombstone Tourism

Boston Globe

      Photo credit: Dominic Schaefer

“Let me look it up on my phone,” says the head-scratching north London postman as he takes a break from deliveries to help me locate a giant landmark that seemed – on paper – like an easy walk from Archway Underground Station. 


The area’s leafy streets had quickly become a shadowy labyrinth, turning me around to the point where I questioned whether I was even in the right city. But when my chatty savior eventually pinpoints my destination, I’m soon striding purposely to the final resting place.


Not my final resting place, of course, but historic Highgate Cemetery. Arguably London’s most famous city of the dead, it’s “home” to around 170,000 reclining locals and is crammed with the kind of poetic headstones, artful statuary and intriguing tales that make for a fascinating – if slightly macabre – day out.


And the best way to take it all in? A tour of Highgate’s West Cemetery area – a richly historic swathe only accessible via guided walks – followed by a self-directed weave around the almost equally antique East Cemetery, “eternal residence” of luminaries from Marx to Malcolm McLaren.


“We can only scratch the surface today but we’ll definitely see all the parts of the cemetery,” says twinkle-eyed guide Kevin Bourne as 15 funereal fans from around the world gather in the West Cemetery’s cobbled courtyard. “Keep your eyes open for large tree roots – and make sure you stay on the path,” he adds.


Climbing the nearby stone steps, I realize departing the designated route isn’t really an option. Tree-shrouded pathways radiate ahead like spokes of a giant spider’s web, but every inch of earth alongside is studded with brick tombs, weathered headstones and a teeming menagerie of symbolic statues.


But it’s best to stay close to Bourne anyway. The softy-spoken guide is chockfull of stories about the 1839-opened cemetery and his yarns illuminate the darkened corners like candlelight in a just-opened mausoleum.


“This was a highly fashionable burial place during Victorian times,” he tells us, adding that when Highgate opened it was a bright park of flowerbeds and manicured lawns. But as demand for elaborate tombs waned, the trees stretched out and a carpet of dense undergrowth unfurled.


By the 1960s, nature had taken hold and the tombstones were subject to the whims of passing vandals. That’s when the history-hugging Friends of Highgate Cemetery formed and began the never-ending job of protection and conservation – including launching a roster of tours that are now frequently full. 


For Bourne – one of several Highgate guides – the tours are an opportunity to share his fascination with funerary architecture. It’s a rich litany of stone-carved symbolism that would be easy to miss on a casual stroll.


Snaking behind him, we learn that angel statues look to the sky to indicate the deceased’s heavenward passage – or glance mournfully downward to represent a grievous loss. A broken or cloth-draped stone column, in contrast, denotes a life cut short, while clasped hands point to souls reuniting in the afterlife,


But while Victorians, in particular, were keen on adding these ornate flourishes to their final resting places, not every 19th-century trend stood the test of time.


Tapping the era’s fascination for all-things pharaonic, Highgate’s eye-popping Egyptian Avenue was built as an elaborate, obelisk-flanked “street” of vaulted tombs, each with heavy iron doors. Marketed as London’s most fashionable final destination, the kitsch trend fell from favor long before the tombs were filled.


Strolling the avenue today, most of us pull out our cameras – especially at the adjoining Circle of Lebanon. Highgate’s most stately quarter, this round walkway of grand stone chambers was built around a towering, still-standing cedar tree. For decades, it was the cemetery’s most sought-after real estate.


But while most tombs are locked, Bourne has a key for the nearby Terrace Catacombs, a gothic building with an arched, church-like entrance. Nosing inside and adjusting to the chill and cloak-like gloom, we hear of the 825 coffin spaces – stacked floor-to-ceiling – each with a glass pane or inscription panel at one end.


Or at least that was the plan.


In the decades since bodies were interred here, many panes and panels have disintegrated, exposing some antique coffins to slightly shocked onlookers. Inching through the brick-vaulted interior, we spot several caskets that have split. Luckily, lead linings in each keep anything untoward from popping out.


Blinking back outside in the autumnal sun, we soon warm-up on the West Cemetery’s main pathways. Bourne has some choice graves still to reveal.


We pass the tomb of 19th-century menagerie-owner George Wombwell, topped with a marble statue of his beloved lion. There’s also the towering mausoleum of Julius Beer, housing a breathtaking statue of his daughter rising to heaven with an angel. Then there’s the eye-catching resting place of Thomas Sayers.


Victorian England’s most popular prizefighter, Sayers’ 1865 funeral attracted 10,000 mourners. But his tomb lures latter-day snappers for a different reason. Riding in its own carriage during the funeral, Sayers’ bullmastiff dog was official chief mourner – and the loyal pet is forever remembered in statue form alongside his master’s grave.


Not every Highgate resident enjoyed this level of postmortem loyalty, however. With the tour almost over, Bourne adds a quick detour to illuminate one of Victorian England’s most scandalous stories.


Artists and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was so distraught at the 1862 death of wife Lizzie Siddal – a defining muse of the Pre-Raphaelite art movement – that he buried with her a journal of his original unpublished poems. By 1869, though, he’d had a change of heart and had her body exhumed in order to retrieve them.


The newly-published poems were not well-received, but Siddal’s grave – finally left in peace – remains a pilgrimage spot for Pre-Raphaelite fans who still flock here to pay their respects.


But it’s not Highgate’s only pilgrimage spot. After saying goodbye to Bourne back at the West Cemetery entrance, I cross Swain’s Lane to the East Cemetery. It’s usually £4 to enter, but West Cemetery tour tickets include free-entry here.


Opened in 1854, the East Cemetery doubled the size of the original site. And it’s still used today. I spot a simple 2001 headstone for Douglas Adams where fans leave pens for their favorite sci-fi author. There’s also Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren’s 2010 grave, complete with eerie death mask.


Then there’s Marx. I had last visited the gigantic, expansively-bearded bust in the 1980s. But the grand, gold-lettered monument hides a story I had long-forgotten.


Marx was buried at Highgate in 1883 in a simple side-path grave already occupied by his wife. Only 11 mourners attended. By the 1950s, his reputation rising, a fund was launched for relocation and both bodies were moved to a newly-hewn tomb on a main path, complete with bold “Workers of all Lands Unite” lettering.


But the original grave also remains. And this time, using a free map from the main entrance, I search it out. A cracked, almost illegible stone slab laid on the ground in the trees, it’s well-hidden and rarely visited.


I spend the rest of the afternoon trawling these side-paths, gingerly inching over tree roots, squinting at faded statuary and pushing aside curtains of ivy to reveal the gothic lettering on dozens of crumbling headstones. I soon have a shortlist of favorite names – Edward Truelove, Cubitt Nichols and Charles Toogood.


I also meet a resident critter. Bourne had told me that Highgate is like a wildlife refuge in the ever-busy city, with foxes, hedgehogs, bats and birds residing unencumbered here – alongside a rare orb spider colony recently discovered in the Egyptian Avenue vaults.


But my discovery is less exotic: a black cat posing atop a leaning headstone like a prop from a Halloween diorama. Hopping down, it leads me deeper into the tangled undergrowth, where tree roots stretch like veins across the graves. The ivy is so thick here it’s like a communal blanket for the eternally rested.


There’s a tree-rustling quietude now and it feels like I’m the only one around as the sunlight slowly dissolves. But rather than being spooky, this vast cemetery – with its church-like tranquility – seems achingly beautiful. It might not be my final resting place, but Highgate will always be a peaceful, eternal escape from London’s fast-beating heart.


If you go:

West Cemetery tours are £12 for adults – book via Tickets include entry to the East Cemetery, which is also separately accessible for £4. Highgate is not far from Archway Underground Station (Northern Line).


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