Book report : London Cemeteries

Meller and ParsonsMeller and Parsons is the Lewis and Short of London cemeteryism: encyclopaedic, essential and it weighs a ton.

In the decade or so that I've been photographing London's cemeteries, it seems that their fortunes are changing. The neglect of the 60s and 70s is being undone by managers willing to give them the care they deserve, and interest from the not-bereaved is growing, with plenty of apparently normal people saying that, yes, they like looking at cemeteries.

This must be in no small part due to Hugh Meller's book 'London Cemeteries'. First published in 1981, it provided not only a history of burial practices in London, but a comprehensive guide to burial grounds, leading visitors not only to the famous Victorian sites like Highgate and Kensal Green, but also to the quirky and sometimes very personal monuments to be found in more out-of-the-way places.

Hugh Meller's original book had extensive sections on the history of London's cemeteries, as well as notes on monuments, epitaphs and flora and fauna to be found in them. But the real point of the book was the list of more than 100 burial sites, with addresses, history of the foundation and management of the ground, and extensive lists of those buried in each. When I say "encyclopaedic", I mean it: there isn't much you won't find here.

This new edition is the fifth; it's a paperback reissue of the fourth edition published in 2008, in which Brian Parsons added twelve new cemeteries and copious new pictorial material to Hugh Meller's work, as well as largely updating the text itself to take note of recent changes. It's tempting to think of the older cemeteries as static landscapes, but they're not; I was delighted to find out about the rediscovery of Lord Rodney's monument, for example, from Mr Parson's notes. A future edition should probably note that Maurice Selbach's headstone has been moved to the National Cycle Museum from Streatham Park; I've spent hours trying to find it in the cemetery!

His frankness about the more mundane elements of twentieth-century cemeteries was one of the things I loved most about Mr Meller's original text: "There is little to be said for poor Eastcote Lane, it is small, modest and dull" and "[Chiswick New] is not one of London's most appealing cemeteries and must be the noisiest, set down in a water meadow sandwiched between an arterial road and a suburban railway line." Mr Parsons continues this dryly humorous tradition, with such gems as Hatton Cemetery which occupies "a flat site beyond some enormous greenhouses", and Hillside which is "not a cemetery worth a detour".

It must be said, this is not a tome to tuck in your pocket and take cemeterying: even the paperback version is extremely heavy, but that's a price worth paying for the well-produced and beautifully illustrated work. If you're in the slightest bit interested in London cemeteries, then you need this book.

I feel duty bound to point out, though: this isn't a complete list of London cemeteries. Extended churchyards are included where they're still churchyards - St. Nicholas Chiswick and Mitcham Parish Church's - but those which have nominally been turned into gardens - e.g. St. George's - are not. You'd think "London cemeteries" was an easy brief, but there'll always be questions about how you define London and how you define a cemetery.

For sites which are definitely cemeteries, Hortus and Havelock in Southall, Hounslow, Borough, Feltham and Bedfont (all run by the London Borough of Hounslow) and Havering's Upminster, for example, are missing. There's always some argument about where London begins and ends, of course, but all of the above are run by and are in London boroughs and were open before 2008, so should merit inclusion. And by London cemeteries, if we mean "cemeteries where Londoners get buried", some of those even further out like Epping Forest, the Gardens of Peace and even Chiltern Burial Park should probably also be included in future. Mr Parsons, if you want a collaborator for the sixth edition, I'm happy to volunteer.

Available direct from the publisher or from Amazon.

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