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The Highgate Cemetery in London: The Research Projects

General Introduction: Highgate Cemetery in Past and Present – Images as Socio-Religious Practices

Marie-Therese Mäder, Alberto Saviello, Baldassare Scolari Read the Introduction

Strolling through the paths of Highgate Cemetery East and West inspires one’s imagination. Here nature and memorial culture intermingle and the usually separated worlds of the living and the dead come into contact. Sculptured angels and epitaphs ‘speak’ to the visitors, overgrown evergreens enliven and erode the monuments of the departed and the many Christian figures and symbols already provide a glimpse of a possible after-life. Over the centuries the cemetery has fulfilled many different functions. Here the Victorian well-to-do expressed their wealth and their claim for social recognition by choosing prominent burial places and by constructing magnificent funeral monuments. Thus, Highgate cemetery was and is a place to remember the deceased and to reflect upon the meaning of life and death. It also soon became a place of tourism where one could enjoy the landscape and a splendid view of London. Nowadays, visitors come to sense the spooky atmosphere of Victorian gothic, to learn about the history of English society or they go on a ‘pilgrimage’ to the graves of one of the cemetery’s celebrities, like Douglas Adams, George Eliot or Karl Marx. For some it is even a supernatural site where ghosts and vampires reside. Because of its unique cultural richness, Highgate Cemetery has inspired manifold artistic productions and has become, through its representations in media, a part of a more widely shared public imaginary.

Accompanied by an introduction to the history of the cemetery, the book provides thirteen in-depth articles which describe and analyse the site of Highgate Cemetery and the practices and imaginations that have been linked to and provoked by it. Highlighting different aspects, including the cemetery’s scenic and architectural setting, the use of religious signs and symbols in its monuments, the interplay between real and represented nature, its past and contemporary social and religious meanings as well as its representations in literature, film and guided tours, the articles provide new and surprising views of one of London’s most intriguing sites.

The book is the outcome of a collaborative study by the research-network “International Exchange on Media and Religion”, composed of scholars from various disciplines including the study of religion, theology, philosophy, economics, literary studies and art history. This interdisciplinary approach allows us to address Highgate Cemetery as a place that materializes in its architecture and monuments, as well as in its representations in other media, images and concepts from different realms of religion, society, natural science, politics and art. The contributions in this book analyse the productions, changes, interconnections and interdependencies of these different kinds of images by embedding them into their specific historical contexts and by examining significant contemporary experiences and uses of the cemetery. Since Highgate Cemetery is a place of public interest and tourism, we intend to write a book that keeps up with scholarly debates whilst also reaching a wider range of non-academic readers.

Introduction to Highgate Cemetery

Ann Jeffers View abstract

This paper will introduce the various sociological, economic and political contexts which undergird the creation of Highgate cemetery as one of seven garden cemeteries in London during Victorian times. This heralded a radical change in internment practice, the causes of which can be found in a complex interplay between a number of factors. First, the sharp increase of population in London precipitated a crisis in internment practices: local church graveyards became over-crowded which led to shocking unsanitary practices (this is well documented in both preliminary reports from the commission led by the reformer Edwin Chadwick, and by contemporary literature). Connected with these unsanitary practices are the health issues which threatened the life of the living. A second, and associated factor, can be found in the rise of anatomy schools and their increased need for bodies for dissection. The Anatomy Act of 1832 went some way to curb the increasing traffic in bodies from ‘resurrection men’ and led to the need to secure graves. Third, the beginning of the industrial revolution, the rise of capitalism, and the emergence of a middle class contributed to a shift in attitude towards the decomposed body (often seen as a commodity). Under the influence of the works of the architect John London and the social reformer Edwin Chadwick, The General Cemetery Company was created in 1832 to establish private, commercial cemeteries. This was followed by The Burial Act of 1852 which officially ended burials in London churchyards. Highgate cemetery was the third of these, with its Western part opened in 1839, and its Eastern part in 1854. Finally, a short history of the varying fortunes of Highgate cemetery will be sketched until the present day.

Cemetery as Landscape, Tale, Threshold: Link between the Living and Dead Society

Carla Danani View abstract

What do we consider when we reflect on Highgate?

Highgate is a cemetery. Are we dealing with the dead or with the living? Or are we dealing with bonds between the dead and the living? Does a cemetery tell us about survival in the here and now or in the afterlife?

Highgate, as a set of buildings for the dead, of streets for the dead, has a boundary and takes the form of a city. Here the private and intimate relationship with death reveals itself as concerning the civil sphere as well. Cemeteries are public places, where the public sphere makes itself known.

The many rites that mark life and death are like social glue, in which a community recognizes itself as such; they mark its life profoundly. So do cemeteries tell us about the community of the dead or about the community of the living too? Exclusions and inclusions, social and religious divisions, and hierarchies seem to take place here. We can read the meaning of place in its topographies and in the configuration of the graves.

Trying to understand Highgate from a hermeneutic-phenomenological point of view, I propose a tripodal hermeneutical key. I understand Highgate as a sepulchral landscape, as a tale, as a threshold which works as a place of transition between life and death, between present and past, between the private and public sphere. The threshold-as-place is a point of meeting and of discontinuity, existing as a function of ‘passing’. By what tools is this particular place able to perform such an experience? And what are the world-disclosures that it opens?

These are the questions which my tripodal hemeneutical key has to take into consideration.

The Landscape of Highgate Cemetery as Victorian Narrative

Alberto Saviello View abstract

When Highgate Cemetery opened its gates in 1839 the competition in the growing public cemetery business was already tough. To become an economic success, Highgate had to be special. Stephen Geary, Head of the London Cemetery Company, and his landscape architect David Ramsey did a lot to secure this. While the 17 acres at Highgate Village where today’s western part of the cemetery was laid out could be bought for the relatively cheap price of 3,500 pounds, the company spent the larger part of its 100,000 pounds operating assets on the landscaping, gardening and building construction of the site. Winding pathways on different ground levels, careful planting and uplifting views combined with fashionable Egyptian, Classical and neo-Gothic style architecture formed a setting that fitted not only the general needs of burial (hygiene, security, permanence) but that also created an appropriate atmosphere of melancholy, calm, relief and hope.

Studying historic images, plans and descriptions this paper reconstructs the landscape of the Western part of Highgate Cemetery in Victorian times and asks for the meanings, affects and imaginations that were linked to some of its special features, like the Circle of Lebanon, the Egyptian Avenue, the terrace catacombs, the vista of London and St. Michael’s church on the hilltop. In doing so, the paper shows that the cemetery’s landscape was composed to offer a basic semantic framework that enabled the perambulating visitors to contrive from it their own individual narratives.

Highgate Cemetery – A City of Angels

Natalie Fritz View abstract

Highgate Cemetery is literally a city of angels: there is an enormous quantity of different angel figures populating the area and every single one is connected to a specific remembrance strategy. The putto-esque, child-like angel standing over the grave of a little boy may on the one hand be interpreted as a reference to the innocence of the deceased child, and on the other hand as a guarantee of his reception into heaven. In any case, the fact of choosing this particular angel figure to ‘decorate’ the grave of a beloved child, directs the beholder to a particular reading of how the deceased should be remembered. Similarly, the female angel figure, that lies mourning on the tomb of a woman who died very young can be read as a reference to how her grieving husband wanted her to be remembered: as an angel-like being. Both angel sculptures evoke a specific way of remembering a deceased person because of the particular aesthetics of their representations (e.g. Stevens Curl, Wolffe).

This paper investigates the representations and functions of a set of different angel figures on the graves of Highgate Cemetery. In this context, the crucial question is: do aesthetic aspects shape the practice of how we remember? The statues vary not only on an aesthetic level concerning the facial expressions and physical characteristics, but also on the level of content and meaning. Depending on what function the particular angel figure was designed to fulfil, the aesthetic realization was adapted. All angel figures represent specific socio-religious concepts of the afterlife, memory culture and social power and are therefore enduring images of a particular practice (e.g. Assmann, Schade/Wenk). In this sense, the angel figures do not only function as visual media to remember or represent particular deceased persons, but, also as ‘witnesses of time’, as monuments of cultural history. Their specific representations show how a motif changes according to the context in which it is produced, distributed and perceived in and therefore reflects social, political and religious transformations (e.g. Belting, Bal).[/expand]

Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral? Performativity of Emblems in Highgate Cemetery

Ann Jeffers & Sean Ryan View abstract

The Victorian gravestones in Highgate cemetery contain richly varied representations of flora and fauna. An eclectic range of wild and domestic animals are depicted, e.g. eagle, dove, lion, horse, dog, serpent, sheep, bees, as well as an extensive selection of flora, e.g., lily, rose, weeping willow, ivy, palm, wheat.

This paper considers selected representations of nature in Highgate cemetery sensitive to Victorian artistic conventions, notably the use of emblematic images. In the ‘emblem’ meaning emerges through an interplay between title, motto and visual image. By focusing on these interrelated elements spectators are drawn into the visual representation, becoming involved emotionally, such that the image has an affective force. In dialogue with key Victorian thinkers, such as John Ruskin, a sample of flora and fauna in Highgate cemetery will be studied, sensitive to the emblematic force of Victorian sentiment and the moral values inculcated by such images. It will also be noted how Victorian emblems pick-up and reinterpret Graeco-Roman symbolism of plant and animal representations.

Attentive to the interplay between text and images, this paper will further consider the interrelationships between visua representations and accompanying mottos. How do visual representations on gravestones interact with their citations of lines from popular Victorian hymns such as Augustus Toplady’s Rock of Ages and Moody and Sankey’s collection of Sacred Songs and Solos? What is the performative function of these gravestones both illustrating and evoking the sentiments of popular Victorian hymns, as tools to evangelise the viewer?

The paper will be informed by theoretical reflections on performativity (Judith Butler) teasing-out the power-relations and Victorian cultural norms that are expressed by these emblematic images.

Requiescant in Pace: The Representation of Nature as a Socio-religious Practice

Paola von Wyss-Giacosa View abstract

There is a rich body of historical sources eloquently advocating and promoting the qualities of the newly instituted garden cemeteries on the outskirts of London. While a reform of the burial practices is presented as imperative for sanitary and social reasons, when describing these private commercial burial grounds a strong rhetoric is noticeable, employed to emphasize the quality of the sites as aesthetically and morally uplifting. The extensive passages on landscape, on the seasonal changes accompanying the dead and the atmospheric qualities of such an environment, appear to be more than merely descriptive and more than just a marketing device. They are in fact carefully orchestrated, not least intended to counter the arguments of those fiercely opposed to such developments as impious acts violating the peace of the dead.

Skillfully staged, the new burial grounds necessitated not only a clear initial conception by their creators, but also instructions and rules for their users, so as to shape and control the intended performative, cultural dimension of this domesticated nature and, also, give it continuity.

Taking Highgate Cemetery as a case in point, I would like to argue that the representation of nature and its visual impact might be regarded as a sophisticated set of arguments both in the publications and regulations, carefully reflecting, integrating and deploying a many-layered cultural imaginary: gardens may be perceived as sequences of settings with a strong semantic power; as symbols of a journey, the stages of which are marked by buildings, avenues, monuments, paths, and tombs. They may represent peaceful places of memory and remembrance; be conceived of as spaces of personal reflection and collective emotion. They may evoke a primordial, harmonious stage of humanity and faith in resurrection. They may set the scene for individual as well as social interaction.

The suggested focus on the representation of landscape in Highgate as a large area of reconciliation between the spaces of life and death should thus allow for an insight into the socio-cultural intentions, practices and expectations linked to such a liminal place.

Sport as Practice of Remembrance

Alexander Darius Ornella View abstract

In his paper on graveyard commemoration of sporting celebrities, Huggins argues that memorials express something of the perceived personal identity of the commemorated sportsperson.  As such, the gravestone and the memorial might say more about the patron(s) than the athlete. They emerge from and are an expression of discourses about gender, power, class, religion, and fame. In particular, the tomb of the boxer Tom Sayers at Highgate Cemetery functions as an expression of working-class sporting status. Commemoration in the context of sport, however, is not limited to the commemoration of deceased athletes through burial practices and tombstones. Rather, it is part of a broader phenomenon: sport as practice of remembrance which manifests itself in a range of sporting practices and material practices.

This paper will provide a three-fold typology of the relationship between sport and remembrance. The starting point is the practice of remembrance of deceased athletes and whether or not – and why – they are remembered as athletes or as non-athletes. Tom Sayers’ grave will serve as a test-case example. The second step in this three-fold typology will look at the representation of sport and whether or not the way sport is represented in the context of commemorialization may itself refer to some transcendent ideas (and thus offer a mythology on its own) or if sport is merely used to provide a narrative about the deceased. In the third and final step, the paper will look at sport itself. In a way, steps one and two will merge together in step three and the paper will show that sport, that is the practice of sport, can be a practice of remembrance both in a religious and in a secular context.

Funerary Steles as Places of Memory and Social Diversity

Daria Pezzoli-Olgiati View abstract

This contribution arises from a triangulation of space theory, a reflection on visuality, and on the role of the body in religious practices. In my paper, the general topic of the project, the performativity of images, is linked with the question of the visibility of religious diversity in public space, in this particular place dedicated to the remembrance of the dead. Therefore, the performativity of images is analysed within spatial practices that are mediated by religion.

A sample of tombs and steles are analysed on different levels. Firstly, the materiality of the tomb is addressed: texts, images, and the sculptural and architectonical arrangement will be analysed. Secondly, the question of multi-layered reception processes is considered. Particular attention is drawn to contemporary reception of the tombs of Highgate Cemetery in their present setting.

The spatial dimension of visual communication as a practice that is performed in a particular place is crucial. In fact, Highgate Cemetery is a place where the tension between equality and difference is shown by visual, material and spatial practices. All humans are equal because they are mortal. With the practice of erecting funerary steles, the dead become visible as unique individuals through the materiality of the grave. The graves visually communicate differences: there are women and men, children, Anglicans, Jews, Communists and Muslims, locals and foreigners, artists, and philosophers etc.

Which features of the funerary steles aim at outlining differences? What kinds of practices of remembering are enacted? How do we approach the funerary steles of the Victorian period today?

Uses and Representations of the Karl Marx Memorial

Baldassare Scolari View abstract

Shortly after his wife Jenny von Westphalen passed away, Karl Marx died in London on 14 March 1883 at the age of 64. Family and friends buried his body at Highgate Cemetery three days later. The grave gradually became a place of pilgrimage for socialists and communists of every colour. Sculptor Laurence Bradshaw created a massive head of Marx, standing on a twelve feet high granite plinth with golden lettering. Harry Pollitt, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, inaugurated the Marx memorial on 14 March 1956. Over the years, the area around Marx’s grave became the burial place of other famous Marxists, like just recently the historian Eric Hobsbawn. Nowadays, Marx’s tomb is not only a pilgrimage destination and tourist attraction, but it is also the subject of political disputes and frequently represented in a wide range of different media.

The great popularity of Karl Marx’s ideas and political agenda may have waned, but his figure continues to exert a great fascination that inspires individuals and groups to different practices relating to the memorial, such as pilgrimages, sightseeing trips, and cinematic representations of the Marx monument at Highgate. What kind of meaning is produced by these different social practices? What do the social actors communicate and express (to others and to themselves) through these social practices? How does the remembrance of Marx as a person relate to his philosophical concepts, his critical analysis of the mechanisms of production within capitalist societies and his project of proletarian revolution for the establishment of communist society?

Looking for Jenny: The Image as Practice of a Feminist Imaginary

Dolores Zoe Bertschinger View abstract

Everyone knows what Karl Marx looked like. But few have ever heard of Jenny von Westphalen. Her name is engraved on the Marx family tombstone telling us that she was his ‘beloved wife’. However, at the most visited tourist attraction at Highgate it is Marx’ statue that dominates the monument, his name and quotes engraved in golden letters above the list of buried family members.

In my paper I will discuss the representation of Jenny von Westphalen as the “wife standing in the shadow of the great revolutionary”. Drawing on that representation I will work with a ‘feminist imaginary’ to argue for a different reading of Jenny von Westphalen’s biography. On a theoretical level my paper will deal with the problem of non-existent, absent images. How can we understand absent images in the context of cultural memory? Does the absence of female imagery refer to a ‘crisis of representation’ or rather act as a potential for future feminist icons?

Horror and Glory. On Literary Representations and Semantics of Highgate Cemetery

Niels Penke View abstract

Throughout the last 100 years, Highgate Cemetery has become a literary (and filmic) trope with a variety of semantic inscriptions. Since its first representations, e.g. as a symbol of wealth and social status in John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga in the early 20th century, it has become multi-faceted through the numerous references to it in horror movies, as video game setting and in its representations in contemporary novels with a retro-Victorian focus (especially Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book or Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry). Most of these representations have highlighted the cemetery as a Gothic ‘heterotope’, ‘another space’ with a different order in opposition to the ‘normal’ world outside, as Michel Foucault described it. This interrelation of the cemetery and the city, of ‘special’ and ‘normal’ is linked to the categorical differentiation between life and death, which is mediated through the cemetery as a place of both, the living and the dead. The decline of Highgate in the mid 20th century has fueled the literary imagination and maintained the image of the dark Victorian past of ghosts and vampires.

Haunted Highgate: Practices, Imaginations, and the Materiality of a Cemetery

Anna-Katharina Höpflinger View abstract

Highgate Cemetery in London gained a significant level of notoriety, especially in the years between WWII and the 1980s (when the cemetery was abandoned), as one of Britain’s most haunted places. A ghoul with flaming eyes, a ghost-cyclist, a vampire in a black coat, an elderly mad murderess, the so called Spring-Heeled Jack, and a shrouded figure are but a few of the supernatural beings connected with this cemetery. In the 1980s the cemetery was restored by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust (founded in 1975), and with this restoration the sighting of ghosts and other paranormal phenomena began to recede.

In this project I will focus on the climax of spirit sightings in the years between 1940 and 1970 using period photographs and written reports. I am particularly interested in the interrelation between images of the supernatural, the socio-religious practices surrounding them, and the setting in the materiality of a cemetery. On the one hand, we find religious New Age-practices in Highgate such as vampire-hunts, invitations to black masses with demon-invocations, or the performing of spiritual rituals. On the other hand, there exists a popular public interest in such paranormal phenomena. Both types of practices are interrelated with imaginations of an afterlife existence and with expectations towards a cemetery, and specifically its materiality: ghosts are often thought of as being tied to specific materials (e.g. tombstones), and rituals are embedded in specific material contexts. Moreover, paranormal phenomena, and practices around them, seem to interrelate with concepts of chaotic and disheveled places. Thus, it is not surprising that both types of practices (the religious as well as the public attention towards paranormal Highgate) have been in decline since the cleaning of the cemetery in the 1980s. I will stress this interdependence of materiality of a specific place, performative imagination of death and afterlife, expectations towards order and messiness, and the medialization of these concepts (in texts and images).

The Burial Place as the Setting of a Perpetual Performance

Michael Ulrich View abstract

This paper considers the choice of Highgate cemetery as the burial place of one’s own corpse and the constitutive role of aesthetics in the transformation of this-worldly existence.

The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, a registered charity, offers to people who are over 80 years of age, or terminally ill, the possibility of buying a burial plot in Highgate cemetery in advance of death. Based on primary data gathered through participatory observation, this explorative, qualitative study aims to fathom the motives for purchasing a plot in Highgate and carve out the effects of the certainty that Highgate will be one’s own burial, or resting place on the acquirer’s intellectual and affective condition. Applying Erika Fischer-Lichte’s theory of the aesthetics of the performative, this contribution aims to shed light on the role of a possible collapse of dichotomies between this world and the beyond, transferring the subject into a liminal state, possibly profoundly transforming his or her behavioural framework and perception of reality. Engaging creatively with Martha Nussbaum’s research, this paper aims to explore whether or not such a transformation, if undergone by the individual, also has an effect on emotions such as grief about one’s own mortality, and the implications thereof with respect to the evaluative quality of emotions.

Public Events at a Historic-Religious Site: Highgate Cemetery in London as a Cultural Practice

Marie-Therese Mäder View abstract

Aside from being a place for burying and remembering the dead, Highgate cemetery also serves as a tourist site. The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust organises visitor tours through the West Cemetery presented by volunteers who act as guides. They follow a more or less fixed path through the cemetery telling stories about the graves and monuments, the deceased, and the people involved in the construction and maintenance of the cemetery during the heyday of the western part. These narratives are told to visitors whilst walking among the graves, steles and monuments. The tours represent a practice in a historic-religious site involving religious symbols, biographical stories, a park facility and historical facts. The guided tours shape a specific view of the site and regulate how religion is represented in the public space of Highgate cemetery.

This paper considers how the cemetery is represented in these tours. The visitor tours are analysed within the context of complementary sources, such as the Highgate Cemetery Homepage containing a diversity of pictures, texts and videos, the catalogue of the cemetery, and the flyers and advertisements for other activities. The following questions are discussed: What kind of socio-religious practices are involved in the events at Highgate cemetery aside from the burials? How do the tours, the complementary materials, and the organised activities in this historic-religious site reconstruct and communicate religion?

Methodologically I will combine the anthropological method of participant observations of the tours with a cultural analysis of the complementary materials and the narratives produced and supervised by the association of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust.