September 29, 2016

Exploring Victorian Funerary Customs at Highgate Cemetery

Grymm and Frostbitten Lands, Metal History, Steff

My latest book, Petrified City, comes out tomorrow. It was inspired by a cemetery I explored ten years ago while visiting friends in London. We had a spare, dreary afternoon and my friend Ryan suggested we go on a tour of Highgate.

A cemetery tour sounded just gothic enough to appeal to me. So off we went to Highgate Cemetery – one of the finest Victorian-era cemeteries in England.

During the early 19th century, England was facing a burial crisis. A high mortality rate coupled with an insufficient amount of hallowed ground to bury the dead meant graveyards were being jammed in wherever they could fit – between shops, under houses, behind taverns. Bodies were wrapped in cheap material and thrown into graves with others, only a few feet below the surface. Quicklime was poured into graves to speed up composition, so that a few months later the space would be vacent once more. At the height of the burial plight, roaming undertakers disguised as clergy performed illegal buriel rites.


As you can imagine, disease was rife and the smell from these burial grounds was just delightful.



Parliment declared enough was enough. They passed a statute declaring seven new cemeteries to be built around London, for the burial of the city’s dead. In 1836 they created the London Cemetery Company to facilitate the buy the land and set up these cemeteries, of which Highgate was the third to be opened.


Statue of Lion, the chief mourner at prizefighter Tom Sayer’s epic funeral (10,000 people reportedly showed up to send him off) guards his master’s grave.

Stephen Geary and James Bunstone Bunning became Highgate’s surveyors and architects, creating the two chapels (one for Church of England, the other for dissenters) in Tudor Gothic style, the grand entrance and bell tower, as well as the grand Egyptian Avenue. Renowned garden designer David Ramsey, planted the avenues with exotic plants. Because of their efforts, Highgate quickly became THE place to be buried for wealthy Victorian families.


Hanging with Karl Marx

The site was consecrated in 1839 – 15 acres for Church of England burials, and 2 acres for dissenters. It became so popular that in 1854 they had to extend the cemetery across the road – this became known as the East Cemetery. A tunnel running under the road connected the two sites and coffins could be lifted down and up into the tunnel on hydraulic lifts.

At the height of its use, Highgate was seeing 30 burials a day. More than just a place to bury the dead, it was a Victorian display of wealth and taste, a place to see and be seen, to take tea and enjoy a stroll. It declined during World War I, as many of the 30+ groundskeepers and staff had to go off and fight, and austerity measures meant people were less interested in elaborate burials. In 1975 it came under the stewerdship of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery who have done restoration work and operate the wonderful tours.


Many famous graves in the cemetery were pointed out on the tour, as well as some of the notable architectural features. Karl Marx, Douglas Adams, George Eliot, Patrick Caulfield, Christina Rosetti, and Malcolm McLaren are a few of the notable sites, as well as many prominent Victorian figures with ostentatious and unique lives or deaths.

The West Cemetery is home to the most elaborate gaves and plots, including the Egyptian Avenue – a grand processionway flanked by obelists and mortuary statues, where coffins could be interred in above-ground niches. The avenue speaks to the Victorian fascinating the Pharaohic culture. The avenue ends at the Circle of Lebanon, where an ancient cedar tree – predating the cemetery – forms the focal point for a circle of tombs.


The Egyptian Avenue

I loved visiting Highgate. The Victorian graves contains delightful details that celebrate the lives, achievements, and notoriety of their inhabitants. Everywhere there are symbols of love and endurance, or peace and adventure. Of course, ghost stories abound, including some legends about Highgate vampires. And so, when Lindsey and I were starting to think about the plot for Petrified City and decided we wanted to do ghosts, I remembered Highgate and came up with this concept of a cemetery brought back to life.


So gawth, so cold. (I can’t believe I am 21 in these pictures!)

Highgate actually appears in another series of mine – the Engine Ward stories. One of the residents I was introduced to on the cemetery tour – the menagerie proprietor George Wombwell – became a character in that series, and Thorn visits the cemetery several times. The blind traveller James Holmas is also buried there, although I never got to see his grave.


Grave of George Wombwell, guarded by his beloved lion, Nero.

If you happen to be in London, I encourage you to visit Highgate. You can visit the East Cemetery on your own, but the West requires you to be part of a tour, which I highly recommend. You can find out more information about tours and opening times on the Highgate Cemetery website.

And, if you need something to read, I reckon you should pick up a copy of my latest novel, Petrified City. It’s filled with wraith and masaeleums and raven shapeshifters and all things dark and wonderful, and it’s only $0.99 for the next few days!

petrified city s c green lindsey r loucks