Highgate Cemetery is asking for ideas on how to be a sustainable place of burial for years to come.
This is important for many reasons. Firstly, it’s easily the best known Cemetery in the UK and the fact its publically seeking opinion on its future is big news.
Secondly, because of its age, the board are clearly aware that the space needs to be better managed. Not only in terms of flora and fauna – I suspect the excellent work at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and their recently renewed (and well deserved) Green Flag award influenced the need to address it in this consultation, as well as its historical appearance. Once finely manicured with stunning views of London, once boasting beautiful views of St. Paul’s Cathedral in a backdrop with beautiful trees; now rampant Ash and Sycamore seedlings have created a wild forest, to the extent that some memorials are being damaged by nature. The document below also assesses the viability of its prime function; to act as a place of burial for the deceased. Space is finite and burial pressures are in danger of returning to levels not seen in London since the 1830’s. Highgate is not exempt.
Thirdly, influenced by the likes of Arnos Vale Cemetery and Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, the visitor experience is being considered. Arnos Vale has done great work in this regard and is now more popular as a place of marriage than burial. Will this involve a greater role for the likes of me and Sam, promoting the heritage and the people there; changing the perception of cemeteries as places where memories go to fade? Or reinvigorate them as places just as important as a maternity ward; people museums where history, heritage and culture can be offered to school groups, visitors and the casually interested?
The likes of Brompton Cemetery and West Norwood Cemetery with their Heritage Lottery Funding show that there is a thirst for the more educational side of things and need to invest in infrastructure now to ensure survival in the following years. Brompton is clearing out its redundant West catacomb to create a Columbarium similar to that seen in City of London Cemetery and Crematorium.
Fourthly – and I do wonder if they have the balls to experiment with this – the survey looks quite candidly at how we interact with the dead. Grave re-use is a contentious issue but feasibly, if we still want burial or cremation, we need to make the most of the designated area we already have. New cemeteries like Kemnal Park or Forest Park Crematorium will be rare in the coming years.
It’s interesting that Highgate is researching a ‘lease’ model, where burial spaces are given for a set amount of years and then reused if the family do not wish to extend the claim they have – which is common-place on the continent – compare to the ‘ashes in Urns’ concept that the brochure references, found in Begraafplaats & Crematorium Westerveld. This will obviously keep the Cemetery open for longer, and much like a museum give a ‘dynamic’ to the ‘exhibits’. From a heritage stand point this may create a problem, but I think a model like this is the only way forward, unless we completely change the way we interpret (historic) cemeteries and what they should be. Will Highgate do the unexpected and experiment?
With the likes of notables such as Alexander Litevenko, George Michael and Karl Marx almost Disney-fying the cemetery, will a tussle between visitors and mourners escalate?
What would you suggest to keep Cemeteries open, to promote the lives of those buried within and maintain vital open spaces and green lungs in an increasingly urban landscape? Highgate have a real chance in changing things for the better here so I’d be interested to see the outcomes of this survey. I’d love to read your comments below because ‘how to solve a problem like a full cemetery’ is an issue that will not be going away any time soon.
I'm Sheldon, a City of Westminster guide who loves to bring the past back to life! Co-founding the Cemetery Club in May 2013, it's my ambition to challenge the perception of cemeteries; not as mournful places but as museums of people and libraries of the dead. Fascinating catalogues of lives long gone!
I also co-lead the official Pride in London tour around Soho, celebrating and highlighting the eccentric history of London's sauciest district.
View all posts by Sheldon K Goodman