Highgate hobby that’s dead interesting

A Highgate church-goer has spent his life collecting death related artefacts

The first thing John Francis would like to get straight is this: “Don’t tell anyone exactly where I live or exactly what my real name is.” Why? “Because lots of people get the wrong idea about my hobby. Crazy people who think I’m a vampire man or something.”

John Francis has been collecting funerary art and funeral-related paraphernalia for more than 40 years now. The interest comes under the name Thanatology (this is technically the name for the scientific study of death but Francis is interested in that too). He’s a certified funeral director (though he’s only ever conducted one funeral) and has visited more than 700 cemeteries in the course of his hobby.

“Italian cemeteries are incredible. I’ve spent a lot of time in Genoa, taking photographs of the tombs. It’s an art gallery. It is out of this world.” A particular interest is the typeface on gravestones, of which Francis cites Eric Gill, who sculpted for Westminster Cathedral, as “the master of the art of heraldry”.

Francis’ home is an homage to the culture of death. A wrought iron decorative cross adorns the front door. His study is lined with books about death, funerary art, and church and graveyard architecture, and various collectibles that he has amassed.

There’s an album of ‘death cards’ sent out to family members who couldn’t make funerals and commemorative etchings from the Victorian era that families had done to celebrate the life of their lost one. On the bookshelf hangs a ‘death mask’ – a cast of a face made from a corpse. “That was never fully a popular practice.”

Post-mortem photography is establishing itself as a present-day subculture as we speak. Francis has seen it all before. “Taking pictures of the dead, that has made a comeback. They used to do that a lot in Victorian times.” Another old practice that has now died out is that of sending funeral biscuits to mark the death of someone. Francis has one of the original Victorian wrappings.

Most Read

You could fit what Francis doesn’t know about his topic on the back of a matchbox. “Everyone has their bugbears,” he says “but the thing that gets me is when I see a funeral on TV and they have done it all wrong. The coffin goes into the church the wrong way or the priest conducting the funeral is wearing the wrong dress.”

For the record, a normal person’s funeral should see the coffin enter and leave the church feet first. Head first is reserved for the bishops or vicars so that if they were to rise again they would be facing the congregation.

Francis doesn’t tell many people about his hobby. They seem to have strange reactions. “There was this great vista open to me, it introduced me to a marvellous world. Death is a part of life and there is such a rich heritage associated with it.”