A few weeks before Christmas, at the start of what now appears to be Britain’s Monsoon Season, I accepted a kind and much sought after invitation from Justin Bickersteth of the ‘Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust’- a guided tour of the famous West Cemetery. This film-set perfect vision of the Victorian obsession with death and its earthly presence has appeared on screen many times, if not in actuality then in imitation. If Hollywood set designers are asked to build a dramatic Cemetery scene, this is what they produce.

image of west gate cemetery for a blog about west gate cemetery

Carving its sinuous pathways:

Built on one of the highest points of London’s highest borough, including the steepest hillside in London, (excluding my driveway of course) the West Cemetery’s sinuous, curving pathways coil themselves around the hilltop in a cleverly contrived effort to limit the visitor’s immediate view in any direction. Unexpectedly limited in acreage, considering its founders expectations, its limitations are hidden by the inability of patrons to see further than a few yards before the pathways disappear around the next curve. This gives the impression the Cemetery is larger than it really is, but it also disorientates and deepens the feeling of suspense. The range or flora is vast, with wild indigenous & imported species that would make Kew proud. My guide, Dr Ian Dungavell, discovered a Bay Tree rumoured to have been planted in memory of a departed relative some years ago, but only on the day of my visit did he manage to track it down. Several leaves headed for his evenings casserole.

 image of the circle of lebanon in west gate cemetery for a blog about west gate cemetery

Circle of Lebanon- West Gate Cemetery

Karl Marx in residence:

If you aspire to be a film star, to have such illustrious residents as Karl Marx can’t hurt your prospects, although Mr Marx, in fact, resides across the road in the East Cemetery, a later & less intimidating extension to the original. His monument draws thousands from around the globe but it is the West Cemetery that beguiles them.

This is just as well as the Victorians who opened Highgate in 1839 clearly did not possess the farsightedness you associate with their generation. Or perhaps they intended merely making ‘a quick buck’, either way, their legacy includes not just the attractions of this unique space but also its commitments.

Grave space was purchased in perpetuity, no lease, no timetable for reverting to public ownership, once ensconced, it would take a change of law to evict the interred or reuse the space. This was undoubtedly an excellent selling point in 1839, but a headache for the present owners who still have the commitment but with fast diminishing space for future burials to finance that commitment.

Not helping the situation &, surprisingly, given the huge success that was Highgate in the Victorian era, the cost of purchasing a plot did not change from the very first ‘resident’, Elizabeth Jackson, on the 26th May 1839, to the grave space purchased by Marx, intended for his wife, in 1881. The purchase price in both instances was Three Guineas which equates to far less than today’s fees. It appears inflation had not yet been invented.

However, with Karl Marx in residence, Highgate has the unique ability to put its fame to commercial use and now charges tourists an entrance fee to visit the East cemetery & for conducted tours of the West. Another, more recent political figure, Alexander Litvinenko, is rumoured to be buried with a protective Lead shield, & for those not politically motivated, this is the place of rest for many others of note including Sir Ralph Richardson, George Eliot & Jeremy Beadle (I was convinced someone or something would leap out from behind his memorial at any second) But, irony of ironies, it is the presence of Karl Marx himself, the enemy of capitalism, who makes this commercial opportunity possible. Would he be turning in his grave?

image of Karl Marx's grave at west gate cemetery

Actually, probably not. When Marx purchased the plot that was to be his final resting place the cemetery was a private, profit-making company. Now, it is a not for profit trust. Surely he would have approved?

‘Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust’ have been criticised for charging fees to visitors, but it must be stressed that those visiting family graves are, of course, able to come and go freely. Considering the current situation resulting from the decision to sell plots ‘In Perpetuity’ it seems difficult to see any alternative. And the growing numbers of yearly visitors, happy to pay the nominal charges, suggest less reticence among those making the journey than may have been expected.

image of a fox at west gate cemetery

I’m not sure if this chap was visiting family but I am sure he didn’t pay the entrance fee. He has, however, benefitted from the income generated by this venture. In 2013-2014 the resident foxes were treated for Mange and are now much healthier.

So who would pay the entrance fee & why?

The day I visited, despite being miserable, cold, wet &, frankly, perfect for experiencing Highgate at its most atmospheric, there were plenty other visitors whose incentive was ‘Trip Advisor’ rather than visiting Grandmother. Alatea Rojas Núnez, a gap year student from Brazil, who, despite making a bee-line for Marx’s grave, was not on political pilgrimage. She intended making the classic European tour in the least expected manner; Highgate Cemetery rather than Buckingham Palace. As she pointed out, the internet has opened up the most niche of tourist itineraries, Europe by Cemeteries. Next stop, Paris & Père Lachaise.

Considering what Alatea says about tourism in the internet age it occurs to me that it was just last week I visited Croydon Airport, a visitors centre preserving what is left of London’s and the world’s first purpose-built airport. Now an industrial park, with a small car park & smoking shelter on the spot where Amy Johnson was greeted by over a million cheering people following her record-breaking Australia flight in 1930 & Neville Chamberlain arrived from Munich in 1938 with his paper declaring ‘Peace in Our Time’. Alternative tourism didn’t quite arrive in time for Croydon Airport but, hopefully, for Highgate?

The tours are run by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, a charitable organisation responsible for the upkeep of both East & West Cemeteries & for the numerous listed monuments within. The West Cemetery is open only to guided tours due to its fragility, caused by years of neglect, and because of the unique heritage of its Grade 1 listed architecture such as the Egyptian Avenue and the Columbarium.

The income raised is helping the Friends of Highgate Cemetery to reverse the neglect of years, to preserve this unique nature reserve in Central London & to provide those so inclined with the opportunity to lay in the eternal company of Heroes.


What if you don’t have a Karl Marx in residence?

Most cemeteries have their own notables but few can compete with Highgate. Tourism is not about to offer extra income to the majority but there are ways to help space-strapped burial grounds make best use of their existing ground.

The ICCM are in consultation with Government regarding new slaws to allow unused land to be developed within the existing cemetery bounds. Should this go ahead, untended grave space may be reclaimed or shared by new interments.

In the meantime, individual families can make their own arrangements to extend the family plot. Using ‘Lift & Lower’ exhumation it is possible to extend a grave for one into a grave for two.