13 Fascinating Things About London's Cemeteries

It's not all doom and gloom...

[subheader]1. There are loads of them[/subheader]

In total, there are 44 cemeteries within London, as well as seven crematoria and a handful of hospital burial grounds. Seven of the largest ones are collectively known as the Magnificent Seven. They are Highgate, Abney Park, Kensal Green, West Norwood, Nunhead, Brompton and Tower Hamlets – all were built following 1852’s Burial Act in an attempt to solve the problem of overcrowded graveyards in small parishes. There were just too many damn corpses.

[subheader]2. London tried to build the biggest cemetery in the world[/subheader]

Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, also known as London Necropolis (which translates to ‘city of the dead’), was designed to take care of London’s corpses for centuries to come, and was the biggest cemetery in the world when it was built in 1852. 1852 was a big year for the death business. London was struggling to deal with both kinds of overpopulation, living and dead – the city’s population had dubled in fifty years, despite the cholera epidemic killing 52,000 people. Building the dead their own sub-city seemed to make sense.

[subheader]3. There was a corpse train[/subheader]

The London Necropolis Railway took bodies and mourners from Waterloo to Brookwood. Fares were different depending on whether you were alive or not. Like, the name of the station you went to was London Necropolis. That is really really metal. Unfortunately the city-sized cemetery never really caught on – it only took on bodies at about a quarter of the rate that was anticipated. Business was dead, you could say. When the station was bombed in 1941 the Necropolis Railway never reopened.  

[subheader]4. Loads of ‘em got bombed to hell[/subheader]

Brookwood wasn’t the only cemetery to take some battle damage. Those bloody Nazis weren’t content with just bombing living people – they felt the need to bomb dead people as well, the bad sods. There are areas of Highgate Cemetery that are now completely off-limits to the public due to damage in the war – if you wander off the path you might find yourself tumbling into a crypt and screaming and screaming and screaming. People have tried to blow up Karl Marx's grave multiple times and all – his enormous bulbous head didn't like that at all.

[subheader]5. There’s a disused one called Cross Bones Graveyard[/subheader]

That’s just a cool name. It’s thought to have been largely used to bury prostitutes (known euphemistically in documents at the time as “single women”), but was deemed in 1853 to be “completely overcharged with dead”. There are still tokens and tributes regularly attached to the gates, and a memorial vigil is held there every month.

[subheader]6. Beatrix Potter might have pilfered names from one[/subheader]

Beatrix Potter lived near Brompton Cemetery near Earl’s Court, and is thought to have partly been inspired by some of the names within it. These included Mr McGregor, Jeremiah Fisher and Peter Rabbett. 

[subheader]7. They're pretty non-judgey[/subheader]

Abney Park was the first cemetery to not differentiate in any way between people of different faiths who were buried there. The chapel within it is built in the awesome-sounding architectural style "Dissenting Gothic".

[subheader]8. At least one of them has a vampire[/subheader]

In the 1970s there were several reported sightings of a vampire in Highgate Cemetery. The Highgate Vampire became something of a phenomenon, leading to the Mass Vampire Hunt of March 1970. The two main “witnesses” have a rivalry that lasts to this day, and absolutely hate each other.

[subheader]9. They helped shape phone boxes[/subheader]

Sir Giles Gilbert Scott was one of three architects invited in 1924 to submit a design for a new model of telephone box, the K2, and his winning one incorporated elements of the mausoleum he’d built in St Pancras’ Old Churchyard. There are still plenty of K2s about – they’re the bigger ones, made of cast iron, with a ventilation hole within the crown logo.

[subheader]10. The royal ones play by their own rules[/subheader]

Certain areas of land are designated as “Royal Peculiars” – this means the laws of the local parish or diocese don’t apply, and instead the word of the monarch is law. It pretty much means that if the council want to knock down Westminster Abbey, they can’t.

[subheader]11. You can walk on royalty[/subheader]

There are something like 22 monarchs buried in Westminster Abbey, along with their various consorts, as well as big names like Sir Isaac Newton, Robert Stephenson and Charles Darwin. Most of Dr David Livingstone is there, apart from his heart, which is in Zambia. Thomas Hardy’s heart was buried in Dorset, but the rest of his body was cremated and his ashes buried in the abbey. Ben Jonson is buried vertically to take up less space. All the graves can be walked over with one exception – the grave of the Unknown Warrior, an unidentified soldier killed in the First World War.

[subheader]12. They aren’t limited to people[/subheader]

A secluded area of Hyde Park holds a pet cemetery which started out in the gatekeeper’s back garden. His friend’s dog Cherry died, and they asked if he could be buried in the park. There are over 300 graves there, a lot of them of dogs that were crushed under the hooves of horses pulling carriages round the park – in a way that’s incredibly efficient.

[subheader]13. They’re embracing the future (of death)[/subheader]

Kemnal Park Cemetery and Memorial Gardens opened in October 2013. Six months after opening, it became the first cemetery in the UK to offer live web streaming of funerals.