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Category Archives: London Cemeteries
New Southgate is a big old Victorian cemetery, but if you go there expecting acres of angels and other sumptuous nineteenth century monuments, you're going to be disappointed: Victoriana is a bit lacking. But there's plenty more to see.
Perhaps the most unusual monument in the cemetery is the eagle-topped pillar for Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, who died on a visit to London in 1957. He was buried in London as his religion required that burial be not further than one hour's journey from the place of death. Many Bahá'í are also buried in this part of the cemetery.
Elsewhere, the many cultures of this part of north London are well-represented at Southgate, with Afro-Caribbean, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Roman Catholic sections. The interest here is in the variety and vivacity of the memorials left to the dead.
Visiting: Arnos Grove tube or New Southgate rail stations, and then bus 382, which stops outside the main gate.
Subtitled An Illustrated Biographical Guide to the Cemeteries of London, in fact this book is a guide to some of the more spectacular burial and memorial sites in London. Westminster Abbey is covered in four separate chapters, grouped according to the life and works of the subjects. St. Pauls', Windsor Castle and the Tower too have their own chapters, as do the parish churches of St. John at Hampstead and St. Nicholas, Chiswick. The cemeteries covered are Highgate, Kensal Green, Brompton, Bunhill Fields, Hampstead, Putney Vale, Golders Green and St Marylebone: certainly amongst the more interesting burial grounds, and the most visited.
The formula for each tour remains pretty much the same; a brief history of the place, followed by a guide around its notable monuments, with short biographies of those memorialised. These last are not terribly inspired, and stylistically seem to have been culled from many different sources without much editing.
My main complaint about this book, however, is what it *doesn't* cover: where are Nunhead, West Norwood, Abney Park? It's tempting to see the omission of City of London as just laziness, on the part of either authors or readers, for not wanting the trek 'up east' to see it.
If you're visiting the capital, or only want to see the most exciting monuments in the most touristy places, then this certainly a most valuable book. However, if you really do want to explore the cemeteries of London, you'd do much better with Hugh Meller and Darren Beach.
Mill Hill is another cemetery immaculately kept by Westminster Council. Originally known as Paddington New Cemetery, it was opened in 1936 when Paddington Old Cemetery, a.k.a. Willesden Lane Cemetery (are you following this? there'll be a test at the end) became full. It's a bit too late to have any very impressive monuments; grey stone slabs are the norm here. The chapel is certainly worth a look though; a huge modernist ediface in dark brown brick, you'll need a very wide angle lens to fit it all in.
The other must-visit at Mill Hill is the Dutch National War Memorial in Great Britain, containing the graves of 254 Dutch service personel killed here during WWII. Large memorial stones commemorate another 180 names, and the site centres on a large bronze sculpture of a dying man by Cor van Kralingen. The same statue appears on Dutch war memorials in Rotterdam, Norway, France, Austria and Germany.
Elsewhere, there are many RAF memorials, as you'd expect so close to Northolt, and the highly-decorated grave of singer Billy Fury.
Visiting: Mill Hill East tube station and then the 221 or 240 bus to the end of Milespit Lane.
Hello to the nice lady who offered to take my picture with Billy's grave!
The BBC has an interesting article today about re-using old graves, one proposed solution to the chronic shortage of burial space in the UK, and in London in particular. The City of London Cemetery has been doing this: grave owners have been contacted about graves which have not been used for 75 years or more, which were known to have space for two more burials. At least 30 of the newly-available plots have now been chosen as someone's final resting place.
Personally I rather like this idea. It's preferable to all the alternatives: cramming new graves into space that was once chapel or pathway, cutting down trees, or creating ever more cemeteries. London authorities have had the power since 2007 to "lift and deepen": remove old remains from a grave, dig it deeper, and then replace them together with new burials. But no one's yet used those powers: I think Gary Burks, Superintendant of the City of London Cemetery, is right when he says that "everyone is waiting for someone else to do it. Nobody wants to be the one in front of the camera when it happens."
But actually, I don't think there'll be a fuss. 75 years is a long time; the chance that someone is still visiting the grave is small. Memorials are being preserved (apparently); nothing is being lost, only added to.
And what no one else seems to be saying is that this may, in fact, be the preserver of our cemeteries. The early twentieth century, when the first Victorian cemeteries were filled and couldn't accept any more burials, is full of stories of financial crisis. The simple bottom line is that if cemeteries stop accepting people for burial, their major revenue stream is gone. If we can keep that money going for another 30 or 50 or 100 years, we stand a chance of averting the crisis in our own time.
But what I really loved about this story was Mr Burks' anecdote about when the re-use story first broke:
On one occasion, an Irish lady did get in touch to say 'are you going to reuse my grave, then?' After it was explained she said "Well, that's fine, I don't mind what you do once I'm dead.'
Like Putney Vale, East Finchley (a.k.a. St. Marylebone Cemetery) ought to be on the list of "must-visit cemeteries" much more often than it is. Opened in 1854 to serve the affluent suburbs of Marylebone, Highgate and Hampstead, it has more spectacular memorials than you'd normally expect in a suburban cemetery, and is well worth a visit.
Don't miss the gorgeous bronzes. You'll pass Sir Peter Nicol Russell's tomb on the way in: a young engineer being lifted to heaven by an angel, with a bust of Sir Peter himself on a pillar above them*. This was designed by Sir Edgar MacKennal, who subsequently designed the effigies of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in St. George's Chapel. Two more bronzes are facing each other, towards the north-west of the main chapel, on the graves of Thomas Tate (a reclining youth pointing to heaven), and Harry Ripley (a mourning woman).
Not all the graves in this cemetery have faired so well. That of Thomas Skarrett Hall, an "Australian colonist" was apparently modelled on the tomb of Napoleon. The enormous pink granite sarcophagus once had a bronze angel seated at each corner, but those were stolen in 1989. The "chapel" at the centre of the cemetery, in fact a mausoleum for Lord Borthwick, owner of The Morning Post, is currently sealed off with railings; there doesn't appear to be any work going on, so I don't know if this is due to decay, vandalism, or simply a preventative measure. Elsewhere, several grave markers have been laid flat, and one huge pink and grey granite slab has been left fallen and cracked.
But in general, East Finchley cemetery is immaculately maintained, and there was an attendant available on the hour to assist mourners (meet him at the main chapel). It seems Westminster Council, who now run this cemetery, are making up for the sins of their past, when East Finchley was one of the cemeteries they sold off for 5p each. Bought back later at a much-inflated price, not all of the cemetery ground could be recovered, leading to the slightly odd sight of a garden centre stuck behind Victorian cemetery railings.
I'm putting this on my "must go back to" list, as the sun was too glaring for much of the time I was there.
Visiting: Walkable from East Finchley tube station. The 143 bus stops right outside, or take the 382 to Squire's Lane and walk round the corner.
* Darren Beach implies that these are two separate monuments "close by" one another, but no one who's actually seen it could think that.