Cemetery friends rest in peace as restoration ends

THIRTY-FIVE years after concerned residents stepped in to save Highgate Cemetery from demise – the final part of their multi-million pound conservation project has been completed.

The restoration of the Catacombs of the Dissenters was the last major building work to be undertaken by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery.

The works on the 19th century burial ground – costing �288,000 – began in 2008 and were finished last year.

But the restored site was only officially opened by the Duke of Gloucester on Wednesday.

Trustee and Friends founder Jean Pateman said: “It is virtually one of the last of the building projects. Everything we’ve undertaken has involved thousands of hours of work and a good deal of money. I think it’s outstanding work.”

Trustee Bob Trimmer added: “Millions have been spent restoring the cemetery and its buildings. The Dissenters’ Catacombs was the last remaining project. It’s a bit of a watershed because of the complete transformation from ruin and wreck.

“This place was, in effect, abandoned and suffered from vandalism and desecration because it had lost all its staff.

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“But it was a group of concerned people who didn’t want to see the demise of the cemetery who founded the Friends of Highgate Cemetery.”

Radio Four presenter and trustee John Waite added: “This is something which wasn’t accessible and is now a highlight for any visitors to the cemetery.”

People are fascinated to go in there because they are effectively walking among the dead. It’s another of Highgate’s secrets which has at last been revealed.”

The Dissenters’ Catacombs date back to 1839 and are a relic of the split which existed between the Anglicans and the dissenters in Victorian Britain.

The bitterness between the two groups was such that even in death they wanted to be separate. This rivalry resulted in a two-acre area of unconsecrated ground being set aside at the cemetery for the burial of dissenters and suicides.

But over the years, the historic brick building, which is lined with rows of vaults containing the dissenters’ coffins, fell into disrepair but it has now been restored to its original state.

Mr Trimmer added: “Tribute should be paid to the thousands of volunteers who have worked and given their time over 35 years for the benefit of the cemetery.”