Britain’s most famous cemeteries

With fascinating histories, eye-catching architecture and some famous occupants, several of Britain’s cemeteries attract visitors from far afield.

Prior to the industrial revolution, most of Europe’s city-dwellers were buried in church graveyards. As well as graves, the land was also used to host markets and other local events, and even for grazing cattle. But as cities grew, these small urban burial sites were replaced with larger suburban cemeteries, like the 110-acre Père-Lachaise in Paris. 

These new cemeteries boasted landscaped gardens, intricate architectural features and ornate tombs. Marked graves, once the preserve of the rich and famous, became available to the middle and working classes. As well as funerals, people visited cemeteries for anniversaries, public holidays or just to spend time outdoors. But as more public parks and botanical gardens opened in the late nineteenth century, cemeteries became less visited and many fell into decay. Several of Britain’s oldest cemeteries, however, still attract thousands of visitors today.

The London Necropolis (Surrey) houses almost a quarter of a million graves. When it opened in 1854, it was once one of the largest cemeteries in the world and remains the biggest in the UK today. The deceased and their mourners were ferried the 23 miles from London via the Necropolis’ own railway line. At its peak, from 1894 to 1903, the train carried more than 2,000 bodies a year. Amongst the graves are those of Saxon King, Edward the Martyr, and novelist Dame Rebecca West. 

Up in Scotland, Glasgow’s Necropolis is home to just 50,000 graves but is famous for its Victorian Gothic architecture. A Celtic cross designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh is one of its most striking features. Some cemeteries were designed as open spaces, Anfield Cemetery in Liverpool being a prime example. The diamond shape site covers almost 60 hectares together with four separate entrance gates, three chapels, catacombs and an imposing clock tower. Anfield Cemetery is home to some of Liverpool’s most famous figures including legendary football manager Bill Shankly. 

Highgate Cemetery in London is also noted for some of its famous resting places, including those of Karl Marx, one of the world’s most influential political thinkers, and Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. More recently Jeremy Beadle and Malcolm McLaren were buried at Highgate. 

The remote graveyard of Eyam Parish Church in the Derbyshire Peak District holds a place in history thanks to its tragic association with the Black Death. The plague arrived in the village in 1665 in a delivery of cloth from London which contained infested fleas. Over the next 14 months the disease claimed the lives of 260 villagers, all of whom had taken the brave and selfless decision to remain in Eyam to avoid spreading the plague to surrounding areas. 

So whilst most of Britain’s 14,000 plus graveyards are discreetly tucked away as places for quiet reflection, many are steeped in history and have some incredible stories to tell.    

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