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Top 5 London cemeteries

Image © Gab Minks via Flickr

London Calling picks five of London’s most interesting burial grounds including Kensal Green and Brompton cemeteries.

Not just for goths and gravediggers, London’s cemeteries provide both vital links to its past and important open spaces for wildlife. Tombs and catacombs may be creepy to some, but to stroll through several of these cemeteries is to see striking contrasts in architecture and sentiment. And every stone tells a story.

Kensal Green

‘For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen, / Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.’ The closing lines of ‘The Rolling English Road’ by GK Chesterton gave its name to one of London’s very first gastro-pubs in the 1990s, but Chesterton was referring to London’s first commercial cemetery, founded in 1833 by the barrister George Frederick Carden. Kensal Green Cemetery has been owned and managed by the same organisation – the General Cemetery Company - since it opened. Bordered by a canal on its south side, it is home to 33 species of wildlife and many notable cadavers, among them Alice in Wonderland illustrator Sir John Tenniel, mystery writer Wilkie Collins, Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray and prolific Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. Don’t go looking for Chesterton though – he’s buried in Buckinghamshire.

To find out more about Kensal Green Cemetery, see website.


The much-advertised cinema release of new film Suffragette could be a boost to Brompton Cemetery, the final resting place of the founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst. The Royal Parks Foundation is looking for help to raise £500,000 to renovate the cemetery. Like three of the other cemeteries on this list, Brompton is one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’, historic cemeteries established on the outskirts of London during the mid 19th century to respond to the demands of accelerated population growth and a cholera epidemic. Brompton was an unlikely source of inspiration for children’s writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter, who sourced her character’s names from its tombstones. Artist Bruce Weber has also used the site for his photographic works. Cemeteries like Brompton are unique historical sites of public use: as we neglect them we neglect our heritage and risk losing yet more public space and natural environments. Maybe Meryl Streep, who portrays Pankhurst in the movie, will lead the way for Brompton.

To support Brompton Cemetery, see website.


Karl Marx is famously buried at Highgate and his grave is one of London’s most visited. Activists travelling from afar can also pay their respects at the grave of Yusuf Dadoo, the South African communist and anti-apartheid activist, and Claudia Jones, political activist and founder of the Notting Hill Carnival, both buried nearby. London born painter and printmaker Patrick Caulfield designed his own memorial, the letters D E A D cut all the way through the headstone. Westminster Abbey may have given the great novelist George Eliot a plaque in Poet’s Corner, but her remains are in Highgate. The West Cemetery is only open for tour groups and includes the Terrace Catacombs, the Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon, an ancient cedar tree at its centre.

To find out more about Highgate, see website.

West Norwood

As if Tate Britain and Tate Modern weren’t sufficient memorials, sugar merchant and philanthropist Sir Henry Tate also has a ceramic mausoleum in West Norwood Cemetery. Owned by Lambeth Council, who illegally removed many memorial stones after they acquired the site in the 1960s, the cemetery contains 19 listed mausoleums and monuments, a Greek Orthodox necropolis and many fine examples of Gothic Revival architecture. To death-obsessed Victorians, West Norwood was rather a fashionable place to be buried. A plain headstone marks the grave of hugely influential Victorian cookery writer Mrs Beeton.

Become a friend of West Norwood Cemetery here.


By no means one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’, Crossbones was a dumping ground for thousands of paupers and prostitutes, allegedly since the late mediaeval era. Dormant for well over a century, workers tunnelling for the Jubilee line extension in the 1990s were in for quite a surprise when they discovered dozens of skulls and bones underneath the old graveyard. Friends of Crossbones began a monthly vigil, which eventually helped to secure the future of the site as a memorial garden to those denied a proper burial due to poverty. Nicola from Bankside Open Spaces Trust tells London Calling that volunteers have been busy making a ‘goose wing’ entrance, landscaping and improving access. Upcoming event The Halloween of Crossbones will resurrect a performance carried out every year by Friends of Crossbones until 2010 to mark the opening of the Garden of Remembrance. Restoration continues on the garden, and BOST are still accepting donations to help with this work, raising awareness and future events.

To donate to the Crossbones project see BOST’s website. To read more about the history of Crossbones, see the website run by Friends of Crossbones.