Graves and Greenery: London's Highgate Cemetery
- 5 minute read -
England is running out of space to bury the dead. A 2013 study showed that half of the country’s burial spaces will likely be full by 2033. In London, four of the city’s 12 inner-city boroughs have no remaining burial plots.
But running out of space for the dead is not a new problem. Nearly 200 years ago, in the 1830s, the issue of overcrowded urban burial grounds was such a dire public health crisis that Parliament had to step in. Migration to cities triggered by the Industrial Revolution and advances in medical technology meant the population of London skyrocketed in the first half of the 19th Century—from just over 1 million in 1801 to nearly 2.3 million in 1851. Booming, too, was the quieter population of permanent residents of local churchyard cemeteries—where most English burials had previously taken place.
These residents were quieter, perhaps, but were of grave concern to local residents and authorities: coffins were crammed in unsightly places; hastily buried bodies were snatched or exposed by the elements.
Beginning in 1832, Parliament passed bills encouraging and authorizing new companies to open large, privately-run cemeteries on what was then the edge of the city. London’s Highgate Cemetery is one of the original “Magnificent Seven.”
The new cemeteries were publicly-accessible green spaces and strolling grounds in the heart of a throbbing and ever-expanding urban landscape—even before public gardens were a staple of London’s urban design. From the onset they were travel destinations for people of many backgrounds; the cemetery companies hoped their allure would increase “business.”
But these new graveyards weren’t egalitarian; they were rife with the class-consciousness of the Victorian era. Here the families that could afford it erected stones that proclaimed, exaggerated, and solidified their social status. Many spent their life savings on headstones—a physical legacy, a protection against time’s power to erode memory, an opportunity to be counted among those who could pay to be literally etched into the city’s history. Others were buried with little more than their names inscribed deep in the cemetery’s record books.
Over time these burial spaces filled up, too. Without new burials, there was no steady income for many of the country’s Victorian-era garden cemeteries. And those cemeteries that still had space were up against an increasing cultural avoidance of death (which, for the cemetery, meant less money spent on extravagant memorials). This lack of income, along with family members’ inability to tend graves due to physical distance or bloodlines ending, meant that many cemetery spaces became overgrown. Today, Highgate is operated by a nonprofit. It serves the divergent roles of historic site, active graveyard (with very few spots remaining), and nature preserve.
Katie Thornton is a Fulbright - National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow currently in the UK and Singapore to produce “Death in the Digital Age,” a podcast and multimedia project about how and where we remember in an urbanized, digitized world. Be sure to follow the project on Instagram, via occasional email updates, or on the project blog!