Historic Highgate Cemetery still has a modern tale to tell

The gothic graveyard of Highgate Cemetery is best known for its famous historical inhabitants, but the landmark is also home to more ordinary modern day folk, it has been revealed.

Among the famous graves political philosopher Karl Marx rubs shoulders with novelist George Eliot and other intellectuals in the East cemetery.

But they have more recently been joined by the TV entertainer Jeremy Beadle, former manager of the Sex Pistols Malcolm McLaren, writer Beryl Bainbridge, and very recently this summer by the painter Lucian Freud.

And contrary to popular opinion the cemetery, which has 52,000 graves and is home to 175,000 souls, is not only the preserve of the rich and illustrious.

John Shepperd, chairman of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, said: “Its very much a working cemetery. From its inception, it always was a place for ordinary people.”


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The burial ground was founded in 1839 by the London Cemetery Company, which added the East cemetery across the road in 1854.

Ostentatious memorials were in fashion during Victorian times, but after so much loss of life in the two World Wars, the trend went into decline.

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A stray bomb also destroyed several memorials during the Second World War.

The cemetery was later rescued from neglect by the current private owners, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, in 1975.

When the site was founded in 1839 a plot would cost three times the weekly wage of a labourer.

Nowadays prices are “by negotiation” only with the cost depending on the location, size and prominence of the plot and potential buyers must be over 80, terminally ill, or dead.

That has not stopped modern day icons choosing the cemetery as their final resting spot.

The mourners of punk pioneer Malcolm McLaren travelled to his burial last spring on a double-decker bus emblazoned with the words “Malcolm was here”. The same phrase now adorns his gravestone.

In contrast Lucian Freud was buried in a secret ceremony in July, officiated by his friend the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Other notable modern graves include that of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian spy who was killed by radioactive poisoning and died at his Muswell Hill home in 2006. He was buried in a lead-lined coffin.

Jeremy Beadle’s grave is a monument to his love of books and the stone mason who crafted the memorial said “we get asked to do lovely things, it’s a dream job”.

Other famous and not so famous names will yet add to the history of the fascinating landmark as the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust believe they have enough space for another ten years.

“We are close to full, but the grounds staff are very good at finding new spaces,” said Mr Shepperd.

The cemetery is also home to two live inhabitants - black and white cats who roam among the leafy grounds called Domino and Domino II.

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