Plan to reuse graves as Highgate cemetery runs out of space

02.02.2020
Plan to reuse graves as Highgate cemetery runs out of space - Похоронный портал
Gravestones in Highgate Cemetery in north London, where a plot can cost £20,000. Photograph: Rune Hellestad/Corbis via Getty Images


A private member’s bill in the Lords this week would allow charity trust to reopen long-abandoned plots


It is the most exclusive location in Britain. A plot in Highgate’s east cemetery, resting place of Karl Marx, George Eliot and Malcolm McLaren, will set you back £20,000. In the west cemetery, where lie George Michael, Christina Rossetti and Michael Faraday, a plot costs double.

“We have a reputation for being the most expensive cemetery in the country,” said Dr Ian Dungavel, chief executive of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, a charity that rescued the site after decades of neglect. “That’s not something we have deliberately chosen to be, but I think it relates to the value of land around the place. Where land values are highest, grave values are highest.”

Yet, despite the hefty price tags, demand for residency in this city of the dead is outstripping supply. The east cemetery will be full in about four years and the west in 10, leaving the London borough of Camden without an operational cemetery. This is why the trust wants the law changed so that certain graves can be reopened and reused, a process it describes as “grave renewal”.

A private member’s bill, which will this week receive its first reading in the House of Lords, would “authorise the trust to extinguish rights of burial in grave spaces, and to disturb and reinter human remains in graves in order to increase the space for further interments in such graves”.

The trust, whose upkeep of the cemetery is entirely self-generated, must walk a tightrope between the needs of the living and the dead. Around half its income comes from the 70 burials each year. Most of the remainder comes from the 100,000 visitors who each year pay to walk around the graves. The cemetery also makes money as a film location. Hampstead, starring Diane Keaton, and Fantastic Beasts 2 – in which it doubled for Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery – were filmed there.

“This is not going to result in the removal of great Victorian headstones; they’ll stay where they are,” Dungeval said. “Highgate is a very strange cemetery in that we make half of our money from visitors coming to see us – either paying to wander around the east cemetery or on a tour around the west. It would be suicidal for us to start removing the heritage that people come to see.”

The cemetery, which now has 53,000 graves holding 170,000 people, was established by a private member’s bill in 1836, so an act of parliament is required if it is to be granted new powers. Only long-abandoned graves, where the last burial was more than 75 years ago, would be considered for renewal. Notices would be placed in the press, on the internet, at the cemetery entrance and on the grave. Attempts would be made to contact the grave owner.If a relative objected, no renewal would be considered for a further 25 years.

Highgate’s space problems are not uncommon. A 2013 survey found that almost half of England’s cemeteries claimed they would run out of space within 20 years. A quarter said they would be full within a decade.

Many of its graves reflect the social changes that have swept Britain’s cities. Massive population growth in the late 18th century saw the Victorians build large urban cemeteries offering family graves where members could be buried together. But as people became more mobile, moving away from where they grew up, such graves fell out of favour and were left untended and under-used.

A sample area of 200 graves examined by the trust found that 53 graves had no headstone, 37 were of sufficient depth to have two more human remains interred and 14 an additional one.

“Some may see this as interfering with the dead in a way that is inappropriate,” Dungeval said. “But I would make the observation that throughout the centuries the dead are rarely left to lie as they were. The injunction ‘rest in peace’ typically refers to the soul rather than the body. What we are proposing is a balance between those promises that were made and the needs of the present generation.”


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