History & Culture

How resting places of the affluent from the Victorian era are now tourist spots

Six feet under: The resting abodes of affluent citizens from the bygone Victorian era in London are now tourist hiking spots

A £5 ticket and a trod up a posh neighbourhood in North London is what it takes to meet Karl Marx, one of the most influential philosophers and political economists of our age. Marx rests in a grave inside the privately-owned Highgate Cemetery.

The abode of nobles

This Victorian-era burial ground — one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ in London — with its sylvan landscape, paved roads and green lawns, also doubles up as a serene park, and is home to some of the finest funerary architecture in the United Kingdom (Kensal Green, Abney Park, West Norwood, Nunhead, Brompton, Tower Hamlets and Highgate make up the Magnificent Seven cemeteries, all of which were established between 1832 and 1841).

On either side of the road, cenotaphs of exquisite artistry stand on countless gravestones, many dating to the mid-19th Century. Marx lies, justly, on the left side of the compound; his bearded bust on top of a granite column marking the grave. Among the other notable permanent inhabitants here are the pop musician George Michael, Austrian sculptor Anna Mahler, and Malcolm McLaren, torch-bearer of UK’s punk movement and the former manager of Sex Pistols. Since its establishment in 1839, Highgate has remained a cemetery for the London elites. At £18,000 for burial (as per a 2017 The Guardian news report), it is also one of the priciest burial grounds in London.

The cenotaphs are also reminders of an era that was obsessed with the idea of a luxurious burial, and particular about ensuring class discrimination even in death. Things have not changed much since those days, writes historian Maximilian Scholz in his paper about the ‘Magnificent Seven’. “In London, the dead enjoy prime real estate in the fringes of the city centre,” according to Scholz. Today, the regions around these seven privately-held cemeteries make up some of the most expensive residential areas in London, where villas cost millions of pounds.

Out of the seven, only Abney Park in north-east London and Tower Hamlets in East London were where a Victorian commoner could dare to think of getting buried for a high, yet affordable, price. A little jungle with wild overgrowth and many dilapidated graves in the middle of picturesque Stoke Newington in the London Borough of Hackney, Abney Park, unlike the posh Highgate and Kensal Green cemeteries, does not have paved roads or lawns.

Oh! The irony

Apart from being an “affordable burial ground”, Abney Park was also conceived as a cemetery for the non-Anglicans — the English Dissenters, Catholics and Jews. For instance, the famous non-conformist poet Isaac Watts is buried here. This non-adherence is reflected even in the architecture of the chapel — designed by William Hosking (a professor of architecture at King’s College in 1840) — found inside the cemetery. Hosking ensured that the chapel’s design showed no bias towards any one Christian sect. It is considered to be the oldest surviving non-denominational chapel in Europe.

Today, these cemeteries are popular hiking spots for tourists. Abney Park, Tower Hamlets and Nunhead (in South London), apart from being places of historical importance, are also home to a number of species of trees, plants and animals. All of them, except Highgate, are free for anyone to enter during the day.

But thanks to Karl Marx, Highgate is the most popular one among tourists. The cemetery even has a store that sells Marxist books and other merchandise. The tomb of the father of the proletarian revolution is today a bourgeois business venture. Irony must be rolling in its grave!

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 4:13:44 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/londons-highgate-cemetery-is-now-a-hiking-spot/article30179106.ece

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