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Graveyard shift

London's Highgate Cemetery is the final resting place for many well-known people of our times, writes Romesh Bhattacharji.

india Updated: Feb 13, 2008 16:36 IST
Romesh Bhattacharji

Highgate Cemetery in the North of London is the quietest place in the clamorous city. Not even a hint of the varied noises comes through. Even if it did get past the adjacent Waterlow Park, the forest inside the Cemetery would snuff it out. The 37-acre cemetery, which borders both sides of a leafy undulating Swain's Lane, is on top of Highgate Hill.

Many centuries ago, Highgate Hill had a toll booth to collect tax from traders entering and leaving London.

Magnificent Seven
In 1832, the British Parliament authorised seven burial grounds to accommodate the rush. These were known as the Magnificent Seven, Highgate was one of them. Here lie the remains of the rich and the famous of the Victorian era. Adventurers, actors, aristocrats, authors, cricketers, doctors, explorers, engineers, magicians, musicians, poets, politicians, revolutionaries, refugees, scientists along with some ordinary people.

Popular remembrance
The most popular grave is Grave No 32 in the Eastern Cemetery . That of Karl Marx, buried here with his wife Jenny, who predeceased him by 15 months, his house keeper, grand son and daughter. There are fresh flowers on his grave everyday People . from all over the world come here and this is how the Friends of Highgate Cemetery get a lot of funds to maintain the place. Lenin was a regular visitor here when he stayed in London in 1903.

Decorated in death
Most of the other graves are embellished with intricate emblems and wreaths. Many have been tilted and split by roots, vines and trunks giving the headstones a teetering, drunken appearance. It's almost as if the bodies are tossing and turning.

The unruly forest lit up by wild flowers, foxes and hares, is dense enough to conceal many graves, but it's worth the trouble to hack through the brambles to see some unusual grave stones. The older western section (1839) has graves with elaborate and ornate carvings and frescoes.

Because of the fragility of these decorations, only guided tours are allowed into this section. There is an entrance fee of £1 (Rs 77.8 ) for both cemeteries. Michael Faraday (1791-1867), who constructed the first electric motor lies here. So does the famous Gray (1820-1861) of Gray's Anatomy, which still provides the to student doctors.

Christina Georgina Rosseti (1830-1894) is buried here. So is her brother Dante Rosseti's wife, with whom a ghoulish story is associated. Dante, in a fit of grief, buried a book of his latest poems with her.

Later when he needed money, he dug up the grave at night, recovered the book (that had become entangled in the grown hair), and after disinfecting it, sold it for a lot of money, Understandably, there is a myth about the Highgate Vampire and it was natural that a Dracula movie of the 1960s was shot here!