The English have always been fascinated by death and burials – the Queen has even already planned her own funeral a few years back! In fact, it is pretty common to plan your own burial in England. Here’s why the Highgate cemetery is so famous:
History of the famous London Highgate Cemetery
There are two different parts of the Highgate cemetery – East and West. The Highgate cemetery in London is over 180 years old (well, at least the West part). During the industrial revolution there was a very rapid population growth which, unfortunately, also meant that a lot more graves were needed. Before that, people mostly used to build small graveyards in front of churches. Those, however, were not very deep – people were not buried properly, thus risking diseases to spread. Quite a bit was invested into building the West side and you won’t see the beautiful architecture in the East part. Elizabeth Jackson was the first to be buried at the Highgate cemetery, just six days after the bishop consecrated the site.
The East cemetery was built almost 30 years later, as Highgate became a very desired and popular burial site. There were even multiple occupancy per grave! Life was much much different back then – the average person’s age of death was only 35, while 25% of the people buried were children 🙁
Walking around, you’ll see some parts that have been consecrated and have crosses all around. As you walk down the West cemetery, you’ll see more and more symbols that are not Christian – for example, obelisks!
Unfortunately, there was a decline in the Highgate cemetery condition and maintenance. After WWI, it was almost abandoned – there weren’t even any lanes, nature had started to take its toll. Since it was owned by a private company, it decided that it wasn’t profitable to run it anymore. Around 1975, a group of locals finally decided to take matters in their own hands and started clearing up everything. What an impossible task! They even established the “Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust”, which is active even today. Most of the people that work in the Trust and at the cemetery are actually volunteers, so be kind!
The Magnificent Seven Cemeteries in London
Actually, the Highgate Cemetery in London is part of the so-called “Magnificent Seven” or “The Garden Cemeteries”. Here are all the cemeteries that are included:
- Abney Park
- Kensal Green
- Tower Hamlets
- West Norwood
However, none of the other sites is as famous or as beautiful as the Highgate cemetery.
What to see at the Highgate Cemetery in London
The Egyptian Avenue at the Highgate Cemetery
The Egyptian Avenue was where only the wealthiest people were buried. Well, actually, they were not really buried – the coffins stand, even now, above ground. There are sixteen vaults at the Egyptian Avenue and each was usually purchased by a whole family (there are 12 slots in each). Around this part of the cemetery, you’ll notice an upside-down torch – it’s a symbol of eternal life.
The Circle of Lebanon at the Highgate Cemetery
One of the most popular movie locations at the Highgate cemetery is the Circle of Lebanon. The circle was actually built around the Tree of Lebanon, which is quite impressive and is even believed to be about 350 years old! The ground was excavated and space was made, little by little, for further 36 vaults. You cannot enter any of them, but you can take a peak into one or two that don’t have a solid door.
Movies shot at the Highgate Cemetery
In the past, the famous London cemetery was a filming location for many movies with ghosts and vampires, some of which pretty low-budget. Nowadays, the caretakers of the cemetery are very picky as to what can be shot. Some of the more recent movies and shows include Fantastic Beasts, Hampstead and even Luther!
Terrace Catacombs at the Highgate Cemetery
The Gothic-styled catacombs at Highgate are not at all what I expected – yes, they’re dark, but they’re not underground. In fact, they’re located at one of the highest points of the site! With over 55 vaults, long corridor with light beaming down, they make for a feast for the eyes. Whew, I honestly thought they’d be scarier!
Karl Marx’s Grave
Karl Marx is buried at the East part of the Highgate Cemetery in London. He and his wife were actually “moved” to this site and reburied, while the monument was erected a couple of years later. You’ll see some quotes from his ” The Communist Manifesto” inscribed on the monument.
We visited Highgate about a month after someone vandalised the monument, so it was a quite disappointing sight to see all this hatred.
Map of graves at Highgate Cemetery
There are many, many curious burials at the famous London cemetery! Here is a bit more information on these celebrities:
Famous people buried in London – Highgate’s East Cemetery
1. Leslie Hutchinson (1900-1969) – here lies one of the most famous cabaret singers of the 20s and 30s! As most solo artists, he began his career in a band, but even when he became famous, he was still struggling with racial prejudice. He fathered 8 children from 7 different women! Cause of death: phneumonia.
2. Anna Mahler (1904-1988) – even though her father was a composer (Gustav Mahler), the Austrian lady decided to forge her own path and studied art. She became a great sculptor and won prestigious awards around Europe! She, too, had 5 husbands (but only two children). Boy, these artists sure knew how to lead a bohemian life, didn’t they?
3. Douglas Adams (1952-2001) – The writer was mostly famous for his “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (if you haven’t gotten your hands on this piece yet, do so and you won’t regret it!). During the beginning of his career, he worked multiple jobs to support himself and later, his sci-fi hit radio show became his most renown work. Cause of death: heart attack.
4. Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005) – Caulfield was an English painter that loved painting still life. Some of his canvases were even held by David Bowie!
5. Jeremy Beadle (1948-2008) – Jeremy Beadle was one of the most famous English TV presenters, having been the face and heart of programmes as You’ve Been Framed and Game for a Laugh. Cause of death: cancer.
6. Malcolm McLaren (1946-2010) – an iconic behind-the-scenes figure for Britain, he worked and designed along his girlfriend, the infamous Vivienne Westwood. He did love music as well – the Sex Pistols were one of the clients he managed!
7. Karl Marx (1818-1883) – perhaps the most famous burial at Highgate, Karl Marx actually lived in a few countries. Born in Germany, kicked out of France, he spent the rest of his life in London, where he published Das Kapital.
8. George Fripp (1813-1896) – you can see works from this artist at The Tate London! Watercolor painting ran in his family – both his grandfather and his brother were painters.
9. George Eliot (1819-1880) – her real name was actually Mary Ann Evans! She lived with his father, but after his death she really immersed into writing – philosophical journals and editing famous London literary pieces. George Eliot was so lucky – her husband encouraged her to write and thus helped give light to some of her most famous pieces, as “The Mill of the Floss”.
Famous people buried in London – Highgate’s West Cemetery
10. George Michael (1963-2016) & Lesley Panayiotou (1938-1997) – George is buried next to his mother. He lived the Highgate neighbourhood and even bought a house there. However, bear in mind that it is currently not possible to see George Michael’s grave – it’s at a private inaccessible for visitors plot.
11. Alexander Litvinenko (1962-2006) – A former Russian spy, Litvinenko fled to England late in his life. He knew many secrets and this was, perhaps, the reason he started criticising his former bosses!
12. Michael Faraday (1791-1867) – one of the most famous people buried at the Highgate cemetery was Michael Faraday! His contribution of discovering electromagnetic induction was highly praised – he published many papers and gave lots of lectures. You can also thank him for inventing words like “electrode” and “ion”!
13. Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) – the famous poet, mostly known for her work “The Bleak Mid-Winter” was not a bohemian artist – she chose not to marry, but focus on her career.
14. Thomas Sayers (1826–1865) – even though he is not that famous today, he had one of the most legendary boxing matches back then! During the 19th century, boxing was not regulated. AT ALL! All punches were allowed, and he even dislocated his shoulder while fighting his opponent, while the opponent was rendered blind for a bit (but continued to fight…). Boxing was indeed so unregulated, that even audience members were often fighting each other. His was the biggest burial at the Highgate cemetery – the queues of the procession were over 3.5 miles long! You’ll recognize his grave as “the one with the dog” – he loved his dog Lion so much (the dog was even “leading” the procession), that he demanded a statue of him at his tomb.
Looking for more of pretty London? Check out the prettiest streets in the city!
How to get to Highgate Cemetery
To get to to London’s famous Highgate cemetery, you can take the tube. The closest metro stops are Archway (a bit closer) and Highgate. They’re both on the Northern (black) line. You can also lookup the exact address: Highgate Cemetery, Swain’s Lane, London N6 6PJ.
There are 3 main bus stops that are near this London hidden gem – Parliament Hill Field (take the bus C2), Brookfield Park (take the bus C11) and Waterlow Park on Highgate Hill (143, 210 and 271 buses stop there).
If you’d like to visit the famous London by car, you’d be best off going in a weekday afternoon or on the weekend, when on-street parking is free in the surrounding streets. There are restrictions on weekdays in the period 10:00 am – 12:00 pm (noon), so try to avoid these.
Opening hours & entrance fee – the Highgate Cemetery
Visiting Highgate’s East Cemetery
You can enter the East side and explore on your own, but there is an entrance fee of 4 GBP. Here are the opening hours for this part:
Every day (including weekends):
10 am – 5 pm (from March to October)
10 am – 4 pm (from November to February)
You can also attend a guided tour, if you wish, for the East part – the total ticket costs 8 GBP and the tour is usually at 2 pm on Saturdays. Here’s some more information about it.
Visiting Highgate’s West Cemetery
If you’d like to see the West side of the Highgate cemetery, however, you can ONLY do so via a guided tour. The West side is also where you will see the all the famous sights that are usually shown in movies! It’s much more interesting, as it’s the older part of it. The guided tour costs 12 GBP per person (or only 8 GBP if you’ve already visited the East side and show your ticket!) and last about 75-90 minutes. If you’d really like to be prepared for your visit, you can look up a who is buried at the famous London cemetery and ask to see the specific grave and story.
The guided tour of the West side is also different every time! We had a few people visiting the Highgate cemetery for the 3rd time. The graves they take you to, the stories you’ll here – it’s unique and tailored to the group.
It’s a good idea to visit the West cemetery on the weekend – not just because of free parking on the nearby streets, but also because you wouldn’t need to prebook your tour – it starts every 30 minutes (10:30 am to 3 pm) on Saturdays and Sundays, but must be booked online for weekdays. Please bear in mind that the vast majority of tour guides are actually volunteers and don’t get paid! It’s really expensive to run a cemetery.
If you walk down the main street between the two entrances – you’ll find this stunning estate! Don’t miss it!