The Victorian Way Of Death

21st January 2011

Rave all you like about Highgate Cemetery, but the one at Kensal Green is bigger and older, and, Jack Watkins argues, just as worthy of close inspection…

Recently I went back to Kensal Green Cemetery, formerly one of my favourite spots for a meditative weekend stroll. My memories of Kensal Green ’s awe-inspiring collection of graves and mausoleums had begun to fade – but now reacquaintance has reignited the old enthusiasm. Others may write reverentially of Highgate Cemetery, but Kensal Green has it all for me. ‘Vast, sober, chaste, field-like and beautiful’ was how one London guidebook described it in 1846. Of course, it was almost mint-new then, whereas now it looks decidedly decayed in parts. While entry to Highgate is by fee and guided tour only, you can amble around Kensal Green Cemetery on your own at no cost. It’s an often overlooked treasure in the middle of gritty inner-city London.

You may think that Victorian cemeteries are curious locations to enthuse about, or for anyone devoid of necrophiliac tendencies to want to go anywhere near in their spare time. But they offer a very different casual visitor experience to the 20th century crematoriums that succeeded them. The latter are dreary places – tasteful perhaps, but sterile too, encapsulating modern attitudes towards death as something from which to avert all attention until the last possible moment. The Victorians saw the subject differently – maybe because it was a more ever-present reality – and they commemorated their deceased with ostentatious memorials and entombment in vast family vaults. It was quite a normal activity, too, in the middle of the 19th century, for families to picnic near the sombre colonnades of Kensal Green’s Anglican Chapel.

The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green (to give it its full title) is the true queen of the London cemeteries, as special now as when it opened in 1832, the first of the great purpose-built necropolises created to provide for a dignified burial no longer permitted within the city’s increasingly overcrowded churchyards. Today it remains in the ownership of the General Cemetery Company, and burials and cremations are still carried out here.

As the first of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ Cemeteries – the others being West Norwood (1837), Highgate (1839), Nunhead (1840), Abney Park (1840), Brompton (1840) and Tower Hamlets (1841) – it drew the inspiration for its expansive layout from Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery, where Balzac used to go to ‘cheer himself up’, and from the writings of John Claudius Loudon, a visionary one-armed Scottish landscape gardener. His dream was that cemeteries would double up as tree-lined, shrubbery-rich ornamental gardens, providing for scenic walks alongside the lavish architectural and sculptural ornamentation. How grandly Kensal Green fulfilled his ideal, even if the landscaping has now taken on a more organic look. It stretches for over 72 beautiful, wildlife-friendly acres, and has over 130 Listed buildings, tombs, memorials and mausoleums.

While the General Cemetery Company owns the site, a Friends group takes guided tours – as well as answering a steady stream of inquiries from researchers and other interested parties from around the world. Joe became a Friend in 2001 after his interest was awoken when he attended one of their lectures, and like every Kensal Friend it’s been my fortune to encounter, despite his being a volunteer, he’s very generous with both his time and knowledge.

Although he says he doesn’t have a favourite part of the cemetery, he does admit that when he gives tours, he’ll always pause as they reach the Central Avenue, the grand pathway that leads to the Anglican Chapel – the design of which was modelled on that of Sir John Soane’s vestibule for the Bank of England. “The cluster of monuments here is spectacular,” he explains, making special mention of the Gibson Monument, with its riot of alabaster pilasters, gables, crockets and pinnacles. The tomb of Sir William Casement – a former Bengal army officer – has rather sinister figures holding up the canopy, contrasting with the more low key classicism of that of the artist William Mulready. In every direction, there are granite obelisks, cloth-draped urns and mock Grecian temples

You don’t need to look too closely to see that many of the tombs are crumbling away. I call it ‘pleasing’ decay, but Joe says a lot of people don’t see it that way. “We’re nearly always asked what the General Cemetery Company is ‘doing about it’, and we have to explain that the monument is actually the responsibility of the family. Unfortunately, after 150 years, many of these families have moved on, died out, or don’t know of the existence of the graves. And some of the larger ones cost an arm and a leg to refurbish.” Last year, he says, the Brunel Monument, containing the graves of the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and other family members, was repaired and cleaned up for the eye-watering sum of £15,000.
Joe points out other tombs, listed not for their splendour, but for the fame of the people buried in them. The authors Thackeray and Trollope, for instance, have quite simple graves. John Claudius Loudon himself is here too – “the urn’s polished granite and in good condition, but the pillar is Portland stone and now you can barely see the inscription,” observes Joe sadly.

The tomb of Wilkie Collins is quite impressive by our modern standards, with a 6ft high cross, but by those of the 19th century, it’s quite simple. Says Joe: “Collins, like Dickens, was completely against the rip-off brigade that were Victorian undertakers, selling expensive funerals to people who couldn’t afford them. So he specified in his will that his own funeral and grave must be as simple as possible.”

Kensal Green’s catacombs are the biggest draw, which is hardly surprising since they among the few accessible examples in Britain. Are people still buried down there? “Actually, you are ‘deposited’ in a catacomb, and ‘buried’ in the cemetery,” Joe corrects me gently. “In effect, you are placed on a shelf. But yes, it is still used, roughly at the rate of one or two bodies a year, mainly by families of Mediterranean, usually Italian, extraction, where the tradition lives on in their culture. That said, one of the most recent vaults down there is for an English family.”

Even the Victorians found the catacombs macabre, but old cemeteries in general are strangely reassuring places – and much loved by devotees. “Just about every cemetery in the country has a Friends group now: doing tours, tidying it up, or just worrying about it,” says Joe and, happily, he’s quite right. But Kensal Green’s still the best…

Tours of the cemetery, including a visit to the catacombs (taking a
torch is highly recommended) are organised by the Friends on the
first and third Sundays of the month throughout winter.

See www.kensalgreencemetery.com for more information about
the cemetery, and a link to the Friends’ site.

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