On a sultry London afternoon, descending into an underground space that is cold, dank, dirty, and full of dead bodies, is normally the last thing I would recommend. But the Kensal Green Cemetery in west London is worth a visit, both as a slice of 19th century history and as an operating London cemetery. It’s not just a cemetery, it’s a cultural landscape.
Entering the catacombs beneath the elegant neoclassical chapel, you are entering the world of the Victorian cult of death. 19th Century Londoners were deeply aware of their own vulnerability and mortality and their fascination with death reached an almost erotic level. It was very important to give a public form to their private grief and mourning.
At the end of a funeral service, the massively heavy coffin would descend soundlessly on the catafalque into the underworld. There it would be “deposited” in the catacombs or held until the mausoleum in the cemetery was ready. A place in the catacombs was popular for reasons of status in the 19th Century: it cost more than a regular grave. The Victorians of London also sought the security of locks and bars because they were afraid of the body snatchers. Stealing corpses to sell to the anatomy schools was still an active trade in London.
In the catacombs, all sound is absorbed and deadened. We shuffle through the long brick passageways. Stalactites hang from the damp arches. The brick avenues are lined with rack after rack of disintegrating coffins. They have been left as they lie, crumbling to the ground.
Some coffins are draped with cloth and lace, deep with dust. Some were once resplendent with burgundy velvet and silver gilt studs. Now their decoration is barely recognisable, the last vestiges clinging to the lead coffin interior. Not many of the name plates survive to identify their inhabitants.
One identifiable resident is the Earl of Mornington. A nephew of the Duke of Wellington, he lived a profligate existence which, according to his obituary was “redeemed by no single virtue”. He went to the Peninsular Wars with Wellington but was of more help to the French. He married one of the richest heiresses in Britain and went through her fortune in 10 years. He abducted his own daughter in one of many attempts to take money from his own children.
Emerging from the underground, the sunlight is a welcome relief, warming our still living bones. We stamp about, rubbing our arms and lifting our faces to the London sun.
Kensal Green Cemetery was created in 1832, outside London to solve the problem of crowded and unsanitary city churchyards. Lying in the peaceful canal-side park are a scattering of London’s great and good, and a few thorough rotters. The long grasses and wildflowers wave over royalty and quack doctors alike.
Victorian novelists William Makepeace Thackeray, Anthony Trollope and Wilkie Collins are all buried here in Kensal Green Cemetery. They used to meet at the nearby house of now-forgotten novelist Harrison Ainsworth, for evenings of conversation and conviviality. This was in the days when you could walk through the fields to Kensal from the village of Willesden and hear the nightingales sing. London is a bit different these days.
Engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel is buried beneath a simple family monument, and Lord Byron’s sister Augusta Leigh. There are royals like the Duke of Sussex, son of George III, who married commoners and wished to be buried near their wives (or mistresses). There are also a number of Victorian lowbrow stars, such as Andrew Ducrow, the greatest circus-man of his time.
A quarter of a million people are buried here, in approximately 65,000 graves and it is getting a little crowded. For many years the cemetery company has been pressed for space, replacing old carriageways with rows of new graves and squeezing modern headstones amongst the elaborate Victorian monuments. Thackeray’s grave jostles shoulder to shoulder with the tombs of lesser mortals.
Should you wish to be interred here the Kensal Green Cemetery is remarkably liberal: they have always taken anybody who could pay. You can have any kind of ceremony you like from High Church to Wikkan. There is a large area for non-Church of England burials. There is no restriction on the kind of monument you can have in the cemetery itself; there are some beautiful art designs alongside the tacky modern headstones.
In case you’re interested, there is also room left in the catacombs: a small grubby sign marks each empty space as “Available.”
The Victorians craved status and security beyond the grave but their descendants can’t afford the upkeep on their monuments. Repair and renovation of a tomb can cost upwards of £20,000. The London climate attacks the stone and gothic spires crumble. The specimen trees planted 150 years ago have grown up to overshadow the grand mausolea. The chapel can hardly be seen through the avenue of trees in summer. The Horse Chestnuts drop piles of dead leaves on the roofs; the weight sends pieces of masonry crashing to the ground. They even send up shoots through the sculptures, breaking apart stone.
This carefully planned cemetery is an example of the Victorians’ obsession with their place of earthly rest. Upper crust or low brow, they sought a permanent remembrance of their lives. To hear their stories and see their monuments deteriorating makes for a fascinating afternoon in London.
By Natasha von Geldern
The Friends of Kensal Cemetery run tours on the 1st and 3rd Sunday of each month, meeting at 2pm outside the Church of England Chapel. Kensal Green Cemetery is on Harrow Road in London W10.