An Unlikely Getaway

by Kathryn Jones on February 15, 2018

Walking along London’s Highgate Cemetery paths in the cool morning air, hearing only the birds in the trees, was perfect for thinking and reflecting. People often say go on a walk to clear your head, and I’ve always loved that advice.

One of many clearings without paths to the graves.

As a part of the First-Year Study Abroad Experience (FYSAE), I am currently living in London. I wanted to find peaceful places to explore, and Highgate Cemetery is just a 12-minute walk from our housing. Most of the commute is through the gorgeous Waterlow Park. Now, I get that for most people, the idea of a fun weekend would not be walking around a cemetery for hours, but once you’re there, it truly feels like you’re transported to another world.

Highgate Cemetery’s East and West sections cover 37 acres, with 53,000 graves and 170,000 people buried. The West is only accessible by guided tour, but the East is open to just wander through.

Highgate’s paths are almost like veins, with smaller paths branching off the main path. It seems as though the paths want to reach each grave, but many are located in “clearings” off the pathway, so only the ones on the edge are legible. The clearings are overgrown with plants and surrounded by trees, giving the area a forest-like feel.

It costs £4 ($5.69) to get into the cemetery. Being charged to enter broke my serenity. I thought it was absurd to have to pay to get into a place where the dead rest. And what about families visiting their loved ones? I felt better after talking to the the man behind the admissions booth, who told me that people who own gravesites in the cemetery, or those who have family there, are given a pass and do not have to pay.

The massive gravestone for Karl Marx and his family.

But many come to see the gravesites of famous people, like Karl Marx. We were given a guide with a map of all the notable gravesites. Suddenly, the magic was gone. This sacred place, I thought, was nothing more than a tourist trap.

I didn’t want to give up on this place entirely, though. It spoke to me too much, so I did some research. I learned from the history section of the website that the West side opened in the mid 1800s, and during those times, it became increasingly difficult to find space to bury everyone who had died. The cemetery expanded to include the East side. During the mid 1900s, however, the cemetery was wrought with financial struggles and fell into decline, eventually closing down. It became overgrown and was often vandalized.

In 1975, Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed to promote the conservation and restoration of these gravesites. Since Highgate Cemetery is not funded by a local council like other cemeteries are, visitors are asked to pay the small fee for entry. All proceeds go toward upkeep of the cemetery.

Knowing this history compelled me to return to Highgate. Its sanctity to me restored, I look forward to future visits alone and with friends.

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