London’s Magnificent Seven Cemeteries: the life inside
There’s beauty in the fact that London’s Magnificent Seven Cemeteries are teeming with life…
Not the rising from the dead, ghost and vampire kind of life (though there have been stories!) – but rare birds, bees, bats and butterflies, foxes, badgers and insects.
Far from being simply places of mourning, the best of the city’s cemeteries are now sites of natural importance, green lungs in the busy metropolis for people seeking tranquillity. They’re home to occasional markets, music and performances.
How many of us wander through oblivious to the history, the art and architecture and the extraordinary stories of some of the cemeteries’ permanent residents?
The Magnificent Seven cemeteries were created in the 1830s and 40s to tackle London’s crisis with burial grounds. Centuries ago people wanted to be buried underneath churches because they believed that gave them the greatest chance of salvation. The most righteous, well-known and wealthy were buried under the floor closest to the alter, the less well known and poorest in the churchyard and the criminals outside the church grounds.
Churches were alive with the stench of rotting corpses, giving rise to the phrase: “stinking rich”
A population surge in London in the early 1800s and epidemics of typhus, cholera, smallpox, measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria left burial space in such short supply that illegal burials often took place in shallow graves and sometimes quicklime was thrown over bodies to help them decompose quicker! Church graveyards were filled completely with coffins stacked in 20-ft holes. Bodies were often cut into pieces to make way for new arrivals.
The ‘magnificent’ garden cemeteries were inspired by the Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise, which, following a decree from Napoleon, had put an end to burials in religious buildings in Paris. Seven were built around London, with investors selling burial plots to those who could afford a proper funeral – most became the cemeteries of the rich; populated primarily by aristocrats and celebrities – though there are many unmarked paupers’ graves too.
Describing Abney Park Cemetery, one volunteer said: “You’re surrounded by trees and the sounds of wildlife. Some people see the cemetery as morbid. I see it as life continuing.”
From cemeteries like Abney where nature has been allowed to take over to more groomed cemeteries like Brompton, the Magnificent Seven have evolved very differently. The Local Buyers Club has been researching these incredible local sites, to bring you some interesting titbits.
NUMBER OF BURIALS: 170,000
WHO IS BURIED HERE? The most famous celebrity resident here is communist Karl Marx (but you’ll have to pay a £4 fee to see his grave!). Other notable burials include Michael Faraday (physicist and chemist and inventor of the electric motor), George Eliot, Douglas Adams and poet Christina Rossetti. The defected Russian Spy Alexandra Litvinenko is also buried here (in a lead-lined coffin to prevent radioactive poisoning!).
GRAVE ARCHITECTURE: Head to the West Cemetery (by guided tour only) for the most impressive architectural features. The Victorians were obsessed with ancient Egypt, as is evident from some of the graves here. Check out the Egyptian Avenue, Circle of Lebanon, the somewhat spooky subterranean Terrace Catacombs and the mausoleum of Julian Beer.
Among the more moving graves are that of the Victorian boxer Thomas Sayers, whose grave has a statue of his faithful dog lying on it to keep him company.
WILDLIFE: Over 40 species of bird, 20 different types of butterflies, foxes, owls and badgers. This cemetery is on the English Heritage Register of Parks of Interest.
URBAN MYTH: Stories about the Highgate Vampire terrified residents in the 1970s – witnesses claimed to have seen a floating man in a Victorian suit and top hat, gliding through locked gates. Legend has it the vampire was a medieval nobleman who once practised black magic and was awoken from the dead by Satanists.
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