Cemeteries are for the living

As well as being the month of pumpkin spice lattes, crunchy leaves and conkers, October is also host to Halloween, a time when people thought the veil between life and death was at its thinnest. To celebrate, The Print takes you on a tour of the local cemetery circuit

Even if you’re new to Queen Mary, it’s hard to ignore the rather unique cemetery in the middle of campus, and if you’ve had the chance to explore more of the East End you may have noticed a few others. Back in the Victorian Era, London’s churchyards were full-to-bursting with burials, which was causing both health and environmental problems. An Act of Parliament was then passed to allow cemeteries (large plots of land not within the yard of a church) to be purchased outside the boundaries of the city of London. With the East End being firmly outside the boundaries of the city, and, at the time, a place mainly populated by outcasts, this is why so many remain near us today.

Starting at the campus, the cemetery is most commonly known as the Novo cemetery, a Spanish and Portuguese (Sephardi) Jewish burial ground that was opened in 1733. The original site was just over three acres, but since then the majority of the bodies have been exhumed to Essex, allowing the Queen Mary campus to expand around it. One of the most striking, and possibly unfamiliar, features are the flat headstones, symbolising the Jewish belief that all people are equal in death. During the spring months, for only a short time a large number of hyacinths spring up, and throughout the year the cemetery is populated by a large number of squirrels, hopping around amongst the headstones. Another interesting feature is the low stone wall enclosure near the middle, marking where a World War II bomb fell and destroyed a number of memorials.

The Novo cemetery was only opened after the Velho cemetery, now overlooked by Albert Stern Cottages, became full after its completion in 1657. It’s the oldest known Jewish cemetery in the UK, opened after the Jews were allowed back into the country by Oliver Cromwell. Behind this is the first Ashkenazi burial ground in England after the Resettlement, Alderney Road. Notable burials include a number of celebrated rabbis and, although it was closed in 1852, it has been lovingly maintained and contains beautiful patches of green space. Both these cemeteries are hidden gems, surrounded by high walls and usually are visited by appointment only, but to anyone interested in Jewish history or cemeteries in general, they’re worth a visit.

Going further afield towards the centre of London (the nearest tube being Old Street) is Bunhill Fields. The name, slightly creepily, is thought to have originated from ‘’Bone Hill’’, as it was reported to be a burial ground for over a thousand years. It closed for burials in 1854, and contains an estimated one hundred and twenty thousand bodies and over two thousand, three hundred visible monuments. It was particularly favoured amongst non-conformists and, in addition, notable burials include the poet William Blake, John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress and the famous (or infamous, if you’re a first year English student) Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe. It’s one of the largest areas of biodiversity close to the city centre and the large number of trees mean that (for all you fellow squirrel enthusiasts) there are a large number of tame squirrels about, making it a very inviting place to explore.

Doubling back to the east, back past Queen Mary, the Novo cemetery boundaries don’t just end in the centre of campus. The glass-panelled floor inside ArtsTwo mark some of the original borders, and further down the road, outside the bookshop, the wall with the cash machine on Mile End Road is what remains of the original Novo boundary wall.

By cutting through Mile End Park and turning up Hamlet’s Way you’ll find yourself at the huge gates of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, beautiful to explore any time of the year. The walk around the park is divided up by what sort of plants grow in each area and amongst the graves and huge obelisks are meadows of butterflies, ponds, and a large number of parakeets (although my housemates still objected to me holding a picnic there).

It’s a beautiful place to explore and covering thirty-one acres, Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is the largest urban woodland in London. It opened in 1841 as part of the ‘‘magnificent seven’’ – a group of large cemeteries created to alleviate the aforementioned overcrowding in church burial grounds – and closed for burials in 1966. It became quite run down after it was bombed several times during the war, but since then volunteers help to maintain the cemetery and nature reserve.

Heading even further east (nearest tube Plaistow) is the East London Cemetery, opened in 1872 and one of the largest, covering thirty-three acres. Rather unusually, it has a selection of alternative burial features including water fountains, rose gardens, ribbon gardens, and smaller graves with trees planted beside them. Most of the graves here look quite new as there is an on-site chapel and crematorium, but despite this there are a number of older graves and a total of three hundred and seventy-six war burials from both world wars. The East London Cemetery also contains a number of interesting burials such as Elizabeth Stride, thought to be Jack the Ripper’s third victim, and Carl Hans Lody, the first person to be shot as a spy during the First World War.

Although you may be all too focused on what you’re going to wear to the Drapers Halloween party, why not set aside some time to explore some of the more spookily historical and diverse gems east London has to offer?


Section: Features

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