How Do You Solve a Problem Like Highgate?

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.

© Christina Owen 2016
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.
Graves for Ashes – smaller, more compact – the future? Could this be at Highgate?
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.
*cracks fingers*

7 thoughts on “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Highgate?

  1. No easy answers I’m afraid. Re-use is already in use at City of London cemetery and has been mooted elsewhere. Maybe part of the answer is to re think how we see cemeteries – not just as place of death but as a a valuable resource as social history, wildlife etc. There isn’t the option of saying no more burials as certain faiths require burials. The current furore over Southwark Woods and the local council’s wish to reclaim burial land is a case in point. I hadn’t realised that Highgate’s problems ie.. encroaching trees etc.were as acute as others. I was on a Brompton Cemetery Restoration walk last night and they mentioned the problems with mature trees that had been planted as small saplings and were now enormous.The difficulties of managing and perhaps reconfiguring the landscape were all too apparent.

    1. You make a good point – how we perceive cemeteries. Gone are the days where to be laid to rest is forever. My personal view? Have a grave audit, assess the space, then (the tricky part) – get in touch with the descendants and notify them of your intent. If they don’t care, then reuse the grave with the heritage preserved.

      Another point to consider is the cost to the consumer. My Aunt passed away in November and burial prices were eye watering. The family plot was full so we looked for – reuse was the only option available to us. We ended up cremations her and burying her in the original plot but that was expensive, too – now Highgate is the most expensive of the lot: does it become a resting place of the privileged or look into affordability? It’s consultation document toys with the idea of opening up mausolea to be used as columbariums. Legally I think this would be a bit of a minefield but still, some of those vaults have space for 12 and there’s only one person in there…

      Lots of issues here.

    2. Highgate cemetery is not like other cemeteries in england…it does not need to reuse graves…it has a massive income from tourists and donors….so it does not have a problem with money to maintain the cemetery….

      1. Dennis, I’d actually disagree with you here – it is a cemetery, not a tourist attraction, and its first responsibility is to provide a place of rest to the community. It may not have an income problem (I am not party to any information regarding that) but it does face a shortage of burial space, something that the director of the cemetery has often commented on. There are further questions here as to how about how they go about managing the problem with their ‘tourism’ in mind.

  2. Highgate Cemetery is unique in that is “revival” is the power of PR over acceptable use. Whist of the last few years the Cemetery Friends have become more friendly it is the worst of the Magnificent Seven in terms of experience especially when it comes to the West plot. Highgate is not the only Cemetery looking at how to manage the future, The United Synagogue have ambitious plans for Willesden as it reaches the end of it’s ability to bury the dead but are facing resistance from the Jewish Community. It is hoping that it will become a visitor destination and engage with educational facilities and thus remain vibrant rather than other Jewish Cemeteries that have become closed off and rather desolate.

    I would look at West Norwood rather than Kensal Green and Brompton in terms of operating in a modern age. They engage with the local community and wider field, have a number of tours and publications, have managed to gain funds to mix professional and volunteer resources for maintenance and give open access.

    Highgate needs to become yet more open if it still wishes to charge for access and maintain tourist status. IT might also wish to supplement it’s workforce with the adoption of Community Payback workers as used by West Ham Cemetery which allows ground maintenance at limited cost.

    When it comes to columbarium I think its a red herring in that whilst cremation is the low cost option for most I think that they are not yet ready for perpetual storage.

    1. Good points Ian. I’m aware other cemeteries are in a similar position – you rightly name Willesden – but as you say, Highgate is the one with the ‘status’ and PR – I think if handled correctly, it *could* be a lightning bolt moment in (heritage) cemetery management.

      1. Sheldon when it comes to cemetery management Highgate is the RBKC when it comes to understanding function and form. Unless they have a bonfire of the vanities as a result of the lightning strike then they will remain a Private Members Club that host occasional public & private events to cover costs that members are unwilling to do so themselves.

        The economics of the market are not going to be enough to effect change, public pressure will have little effect the only hope is that regulation could cause adaptations.

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