Kemnal Park: The Next Generation of Garden Cemeteries in London

by Christina

On a cold day in late December, the sun came out long enough for Dan and I to make a trip along the A20 to Kemnal Park Cemetery in Chislehurst, which was opened in October 2013, and is therefore brand spanking new, to visit his Nan’s grave.

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I didn’t know much about Kemnal Park, except that Sheldon had once told me it was being touted as the 8th Magnificent Cemetery of London. I found no real evidence of this when researching the place, but the sleek looking official web site for the cemetery offers to make remembering your loved one a slick process that can be tailored to your own specific wishes, or something. It was very 2015.

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In actual fact, it wasn’t until I really started to walk around Kemnal Park (NOT to be confused with the much more ancient Kensal Green Cemetery in North West London!) that I began to see the emulation of the Victorian Cemetery era – it was present in the details, such as the ornate wrought iron gates that front the private memorial gardens, the row of modern mausoleums next to the incredibly contemporary chapel and the long driveways that intersect the 55 acres of parkland, that have already been mapped out in their entirety, even though only about 10 acres are currently occupied. But lost in that this is 2015 and you can never get that sense of grandeur back, not really. Contemporary cemeteries have everything from photographs on the gravestones to an interactive video option, which is exactly what made Kemnal Park famous recently – it became the first cemetery to offer live streaming of a funeral, making it possible to watch the event on your smartphone if you can’t be there to mourn in person.

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A Link to the Magnificent Seven

As we walked through the empty grounds of this most forward thinking of cemeteries, we came across a large signpost announcing a section of the cemetery that would be for the residents of Tower Hamlets borough in East London.

What was this? we thought. Tower Hamlets is miles away. Beyond the foreboding black signpost, strung with bunches of grapes and flowering vines, all cast in black ironwork, there was nothing, yet. I thought ‘Okay, so the borough of Tower Hamlets must be full’, and I later discovered via Google Search that I was right. In a bizarre, yet inevitable nod to the 19th Century, this part of inner London is becoming overcrowded, with nowhere left to bury the dead. It turns out that Tower Hamlets council did a deal with the owners of Kemnal Park back at the beginning of the year – they purchased enough land for 3,000 burials, at a cost of £3m, and explained to confused locals that it would only take 25 minutes to drive from there to here. Right….Blackwall Tunnel anyone?

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It had, at one point, been suggested that Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park could reopen it’s gates to new burials but the idea was scrapped in 2007 and buying up land in other borough’s became part of the solution instead.

Walking a bit further through the cemetery turned up another ornate signpost introducing a memorial space for Muslim burials. Echoes of The Gardens of Peace in Ilford, but again, empty for now. We walked on, trying to imagine what the whole place will look like when it’s full.

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A Very Victorian Affair

One of the reasons we were walking around the cemetery instead of standing in respectful silence before Dan’s Nan was that there was a loud and increasingly crowded party happening literally RIGHT NEXT to her grave. A family and their friends had evidently decided to throw a birthday party for a dead relative – they had set up a folding table from which they were serving tea and coffee out of large flasks, and several bottles of bubbly. Tied to the table and floating in the December breeze were bunches of blue helium balloons which shouted HAPPY BIRTHDAY! on them in Gold. The mood appeared rather sombre (understandably) but the peace of the cemetery park was shattered as more and more people turned up. As we walked over to see Doris, they all turned to glare at us until intimidated, we backed away. We certainly were not the only people trying to have a quiet moment at a graveside, and being denied it completely. As even more people arrived to join the party being thrown for someone no longer with us, I began to think about the Victorians, and their penchant for throwing lavish and extravagant funerals. Perhaps this party was not so inappropriate after all. They’d fit right in at Highgate West in the 1800’s.

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For The Birds?

Kemnal Green had some touches that I liked a lot. Built on parkland that lay derelict since the 1960’s when a fire destroyed the estate that had stood there in some form since 1250, it is surrounded by woodland and fields on 2 sides (the other 2 sides being dual carriageway and a new build housing estate still in the process of being, well, built, but let’s not focus on that) it has all the elements of a stroll in the countryside, and this made it a very pleasant place to be. There were some very old, creaky trees next to the new chapel, remnants of bygone eras and a reminder of the history of the land on which this cemetery is built. These trees were peppered with wooden birdhouses, all dedicated to the memory of someone or two someones. I’ve seen memorial benches and gardens but never a birdhouse. I like the idea of it.

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A Visitor From Southwark

Before we left, we paid a visit to the Unknown Parishioner of Southwark, a memorial statue that, like the Tower Hamlets corner of the cemetery, seems to have travelled a little far from home. It turns out, this parishioner was interred in Southwark and disturbed during the building of the Thameslink line. Reburied here in 2012, after a very traditional funeral, underneath a plaque that announces sponsorship by Network Rail, you sense a certain amount of guilt, and panic about where the best place would be to re-inter this unknown person. They found their new home on a hill in Chislehurst, overlooking Woodland, and perhaps it is a much nicer view, although the location is probably a little irrelevant.

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As we got back in the car and made to leave, after wondering one last time if we should be brazen and march back over to Doris’s gravestone, threatening looking party goers be damned (unanimous decision: nope), I thought about how the Magnificent Seven cemeteries were originally built in answer to the overcrowding problem in London, and the disease that was rife as a result. Back then, those locations – Tower Hamlets, Abney Park, Nunhead etc – were well out of the city centre. In the centuries since then, urban sprawl has overtaken them. Now new cemeteries are being opened in the green belt once again – just like this one. In answer to exactly the same problem. How long before urban sprawl overtakes this cemetery as well? 

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4 Responses to Kemnal Park: The Next Generation of Garden Cemeteries in London

  1. Bee says:

    Thanks for a great piece on a Cemetery that I had no idea existed. Sorry your visit was so marred by people being selfish and inconsiderate. The bird houses – what a brilliant idea! Personally I love the fact that wildlife comes into cemeteries be it feral cats, foxes, bats or birds – the more the merrier.

    • irismacro says:

      The wildlife element of cemeteries is wonderful. I hope to see more bird houses and other wildlife orientated memorials in the future!

      Glad you enjoyed the post 🙂

  2. jenroche1970 says:

    Lovely to hear an effort is being made to return to the Victorian style of garden cemeteries. Modern cemeteries these days are very bland affairs. I love the bird houses too. Although personally, I would prefer my name on a bat-roost. 🙂 Sorry to hear about the threatening party-goers. How bizarre!

    • irismacro says:

      A bat roost would be excellent!

      Having a party by a graveside isn’t a terrible idea but the threatening-ness was definitely not welcome!

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