I’ll be the first to admit that I have a morbid fascination. I’m the one in my group of friends who’s ‘in the know’ about the latest true crime podcasts and have long been a fan of shows and books like Sherlock (and, of course, Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes books), Broadchurch, J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series (I know, I know, don’t @ me!).
When traveling, I also find cemeteries and graveyards fascinating: they offer a peek into the culture and historic context of a society. I’ve explored them in places ranging from Newport, Rhode Island to Kazakhstan – and never tire of discovering people through the dignity with which they treat their dead.
If you too find cemeteries and graveyards fascinating, there’s no judgment here. These are important sites in the history of a place and its people, and when visited with respect, can educate us as travelers even if we never meet another living soul while within their boundaries.
London, as one might guess given the city’s long and dynamic history, is home to many fascinating graveyards, cemeteries, and burial grounds. If you’re curious to visit them for yourself, here are some of the most curious and creepy cemeteries in London which are open to visitors and will open your eyes to the questions of the Beyond.
London’s “Magnificent Seven” Cemeteries
London is home to many wonders, including cemeteries. In fact, there’s one set of cemeteries that has a higher reputation than most: the “Magnificent Seven.” These cemeteries were established in the 19th century (1832) to help with overcrowding in other burial grounds across the city; these private cemeteries helped alleviate public health concerns and were located outside Central London. Even more fascinatingly, many of these were built in beautiful styles of the time and are still considered architectural gems.
As you might expect, these suburban cemeteries are located around central London to help distribute the impact of London’s many millions of citizens as they reached the end of life.
The Magnificent Seven cemeteries in London are Kensal Green Cemetery (1833), West Norwood Cemetery (1837), Highgate Cemetery (1839 and 1860 in two parts), Abney Park Cemetery (1840), Brompton Cemetery (1840), Nunhead Cemetery (1840), and Tower Hamlets Cemetery (1941).
Six* of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries are still operational – that is, accepting new permanent residents, if you get my drift – today. (*West Norwood only accepts cremations and burials in existing family plots.) Read on to learn more about each one and its fascinating history.
1. Abney Park Cemetery
Set in the London Borough of Hackney, Abney Park Cemetery is a member of the ‘The Magnificent Seven” – a term historian Hugh Meller used to name the seven cemeteries built after the passing of the 1832 bill which encouraged the establishment of private cemeteries.
Abney Park Cemetery opened in 1840 as a garden cemetery and stands out for being the only one to have received influence from New World cemetery design ideas, specifically Mount Auburn in Massachusetts. A fine example of such influence is the Egyptian Revival entrance. Abney was also the first cemetery to house an arboretum, with 2,500 trees and shrubs labeled and arranged alphabetically.
The garden cemetery was London’s principal burial ground for Nonconformists –people who were members of a non-established Church. One can find the graves of notable figures, like William and Catherine Booth, founders of The Salvation Army, and various SA commissioners, including Elijah Cadman, John Lawley, and William Ridsdel.
Abney fell into abandonment after the cemetery company went into administration. The lack of maintenance allowed the wilderness to grow freely and climb up gravestones, which ironically made Abney Park Cemetery even more fascinating.
In the 80s, The London Borough of Hackney took over ownership of the cemetery and started to manage it in partnership with the Abney Park Trust as lessee. Today, the property is one of the most beloved cemeteries in London, with its unique blend of urban wilderness and historic site.
2. Brompton Cemetery
Originally the West of London and Westminster Cemetery, Brompton Cemetery opened in 1840. The graveyard is one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries, and it’s also one of Britain’s oldest and famed garden cemeteries.
Brompton Cemetery is home to more than 35,000 graves and 205,000 internments spread across its 40 acres. The property has a small columbarium and a secluded Garden of Remembrance at the northern end for cremated remains.
Designed by architect Benjamin Baud, it features numerous Grade II listed buildings, including the sandstone domed chapel and two long symmetrical colonnades. The cemetery is a Grade I site itself.
Bompton Cemetery serves as the resting place of notable people, like Dr. John Snow, who discovered the cause of cholera; Emmeline Pankhurst, a suffragette leader; and Brian Glover, a television and film actor. Unlike other historic cemeteries in London, Brompton Cemetery continues to be open for burials.
3. Highgate Cemetery
Highgate Cemetery is perhaps the most famous of the Magnificent Seven, in part because of its unique character and natural interest. Highgate was actually established in two parts; the west cemetery was established in 1839 as part of the Magnificent Seven initiative, and the cemetery was expanded with an east cemetery in 1860. Between those two parts, there are roughly 170,000 people buried in around 53,000 graves.
What makes Highgate most fascinating is the fact that it’s also a de facto nature reserve – it is not maintained and pristine like cemeteries you might be imagining. Instead, it’s wild with trees, ivy, bushes, and other foliage allowed to grow freely among the graves. Paths are maintained, but that’s about it – this feels like a wild place to take your final rest.
There are a number of notable people who have been buried in Highgate cemetery over the years, including – but certainly not limited to – Douglas Adams (author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), novelist George Eliot, and pop artist Patrick Caulfield (whose grave artfully reads “DEAD” in modern style).
4. Kensal Green Cemetery & Catacombs
One of the Magnificent Seven, Kensal Green Cemetery, was born thanks to George Frederick Carden, a barrister who fell in love with Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris and wanted to establish an English equivalent. The cemetery was opened in 1832 and had a Greek revival style, designed by John Griffith.
The cemetery featured a consecrated chapel for Anglicans and an unconsecrated one for Dissenters. The chapels in the neoclassical style used the Doric order for the Anglicans and Ionic for the nonconformists.
It also has three catacombs and more mausoleums than any other English Cemetery. Kensal Green Catacombs is the burial site of approximately 250,000 individuals in over 65,000 graves. A few notable names are writers Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray; Oscar Wilde’s mother; engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Babbage, and Niagara tightrope-walker Blondin.
5. Nunhead Cemetery
Nunhead Cemetery is the second of the Magnificent Seven built in the 19th Century. While it is one of the least popular burial grounds in London, locals consider Nunhead Cemetery one of the prettiest. Known as All Saints’ Cemetery, the London Cemetery Company consecrated and opened the cemetery in 1840.
There are almost 2,000 graves in Nunhead Cemetery. The first grave in the cemetery was in October 1840 to bury Charles Abbott, a 101-year-old Ipswich grocer. The last burial was of a volunteer soldier who became a canon of Lahore Cathedral.
By the middle of the 20th Century, the cemetery was almost full. So the United Cemetery Company abandoned it. After cycles of abandonment and restoration, the Nunhead Cemetery is almost entirely overgrown, making it a place for both birding and spotting spooky tombstones and memorials among the greenery. It also has stunning views of the City and St. Paul’s Cathedral among the trees.
Today the cemetery is a Local Nature Reserve and Site of Metropolitan Importance for wildlife.
6. Tower Hamlets (Bow) Cemetery
Of the original Magnificent Seven cemeteries in London, Tower Hamlets cemetery – also called Bow Cemetery by locals – is the only one which does not accept new interments of any kind. It was established in 1841 and stopped accepting burials in 1966. What’s wild about this cemetery is just how many people are buried here.
Now it’s probably not a surprise as East London was historically the poorest part of the city and had a much higher population density, but by 1889, some 247,000 bodies had been interred, primarily in public – that is, mass – graves. These were a reasonable option for people of the time who could not afford a private plot. While there is no exact number of how many souls were laid to rest here, it’s safe to say that it is substantially higher than the quarter-million noted 77 years before burials ended here.
Since it was closed and fell into a state of disrepair, Tower Hamlets London Borough Council and The Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park have worked to expand the cemetery as a nature reserve and restore some dignity to the area as an urban green space. It’s a lovely place to walk on a sunny day, with peek-a-boo contrasting views of the modern skyscrapers in the City of London.
7. West Norwood Catacombs
West Norwood Catacombs sits on a lonely hill in London’s West Norwood. Opened in 1837, it was the world’s first Gothic-style cemetery. Authorities decided to build the cemetery to cater to the capital’s rapidly growing population.
It spans over 40 acres, and the grounds are an exquisite mishmash of historic monumental and modern lawn cemeteries. West Norwood Catacombs even features its crematorium, which is still in use today.
Before the Second World War, the cemetery had The Anglican and Dissenters’ chapels. A serious bombing heavily damaged the structures, which eventually was the cause of their demolition. While the chapels didn’t survive, the eerie catacombs underneath them did. Inside, there are 95 vaults with a capacity of 3500 coffins.
Bold visitors can descend to the crypts beneath the cemetery, walk down and see piles of coffins in the vaults. Some even still show the name of the person laid to rest inside. West Norwood Catacombs was a popular resting place for Victorian millionaires. We can find notable names buried here, including Baron Julias de Reuter, founder of the Reuters news agency; Sir Henry Doulton, an English businessman, inventor, and manufacturer of pottery; and Sir Henry Tate, sugar merchant and founder of the Tate Gallery.
For the sake of dialing down the creepiness: there are no bodies inside the walls, just the gravestones.
Other Fascinating Cemeteries in London
In addition to the Magnificent Seven, there are many other cemeteries, graveyards, and burial grounds in London. While they’re almost too numerous to name here (that’s what Wikipedia is for!), here are a few of the other fascinating cemeteries in London that you might find intriguing enough to visit.
8. Bunhill Fields
Bunhill Fields is another former burial ground listed as a Grade I site. The cemetery dated back to the 1660s and remained open for burials until 1854.
Since it didn’t have any links to the Anglican church, Bunhill Fields became one of the graveyards in London Nonconformistsor Christians favored burying their loved ones. The site contains around 123,000 burials, including John Bunyan, Isaac Watts, Daniel Defoe, William Blake, and many other leading intellectuals, radicals, and clergymen from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
Elizabeth Howell Oliver was the last person buried in Bunhill Fields on 5 January 1854. However, the cemetery continued to allow occasional interments in existing vaults or graves. Historic archives state that the final burial of this kind was that of a Mrs. Gabriel of Brixton in February 1860.
Only 4.0 acres of the original cemetery remain, and visitors can see over 2,000 monuments concentrated in blocks within the grounds.
9. Cross Bones Graveyard
The best part of visiting (or reading about) burial grounds in London is that they have fascinating stories behind them, just like this one.
Cross Bones Graveyard is a disused post-medieval burial ground on Redcross Way in Southwark. The cemetery was known as the “Single Woman’s churchyard” because it served as an unconsecrated graveyard for the prostitutes, called “single women” back then, that worked in the Liberty of the Clink, one of London’s first red-light districts.
There are doubts about when the graveyard officially opened, but by 1769 it had become a pauper’s cemetery servicing St. Saviour’s parish. Historians believe there are more than 15,000 people buried there. Cross Bones closed in 1853 since its graveyard was “completely overcharged with the dead,” and continuing with burials would pose serious threats to public health.
10. Fetter Lane Moravian Burial Ground
Known as God’s Acres, Fetter Lane Moravian Burial Ground sits behind an evangelical Moravian chapel established in 1753. The graveyard is the burial ground of members of the Moravian congregation, which arrived in London after the Archbishop of Canterbury granted them a license in England in 1742.
The cemetery features a traditional style. It has four separate sections (married and unmarried men and women) with flat gravestones. Complying with the church’s tradition, Moravians had to bury men and women separately.
They estimate that around 400 people are buried here, including the congregation’s early leaders like Peter Böhler, John Cennick, and James Hutton. While burials in this cemetery stopped in 1888, it’s still possible to bury ashes here. Today, only a handful of flat stones marking some graves remain.
11. Hyde Park Pet Cemetery
Situated on the northern edge of Hyde Park, Hyde Park Pet Cemetery has to be one of the loveliest graveyards in London. While it symbolizes the loss of a loved one, it is a touching reminder of the special relationship between us and man’s best friend.
The cemetery “opened” by accident in 1881 when the children of Mrs. J. Lewis Barned asked the park’s gatekeeper, Mr. Winbridge, if they could bury their beloved Cherry, a Maltese terrier, in Victoria Lodge’s back garden. Mr. Winbridge consented, and today visitors can still see the tiny tombstone bearing the inscription, ‘Poor Cherry. Died April 28. 1881’.
However, the pet cemetery became popular after Prince George, Duke of Cambridge, buried his wife’s dog there. Winbridge continued to be in charge of the interments and ran the cemetery as a philanthropic gesture. By 1903, the cemetery had seen 1,000 burials, and authorities had to close it due to lack of space. Well-connected owners still managed to bury their furry friends here, though. One of the last burials was Kim, a cat who died in 1953, and the very last burial took place in 1976.
12. Old St. Pancras Cemetery
Both St. Pancras Old Church and its surrounding Cemetery are believed to be one of the oldest Christian worship sites in England. Historic Archives suggest the church dates back to the early 4th century.
After the Reformation in the 16th Century, St. Pancras Church was a refuge for Catholics. Eventually, it became, along with Paddington Church, the only place in London where Roman Catholics were permitted to be buried.
In 1854, the churchyard was no longer in use as a graveyard. By this time, over 1.5% of all London’s 6 million burials may have taken place at St Pancras. Unfortunately, the graveyard suffered the careless removal of bodies and tombstones in the mid-1860s when the Midland Railway Company began the construction of the railway tracks for St Pancras Station.
Visitors can still see the tomb and memorials of eminent citizens in the churchyard. One of the most famous Grade I listed structures is Sir John Soane’s tomb. There’s also a memorial to Mary Wollstonecraft, the famous author of the Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and the mother of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. The gem of the place is The Hardy Tree, though. Hundreds of overlapping gravestones encircle the ash tree, creating a perfect example of gothic and grotesque beauty.
13. The Dead House at Somerset House
Most people know the colossal Somerset House as a cultural venue to enjoy art, concerts, and riverside dining. But not many know that beneath the grandstanding building, there are far more frightening “exhibitions” one can attend beneath the grandstanding building: The “Deadhouse”.
The Deadhouse houses five surviving tombstones in a maze of vaults, passages, and chambers. They are likely all that remains of a Roman Catholic chapel Charles I built in 1630 for his French queen Henrietta Maria. The chapel included a cemetery, and when it was demolished, some of these gravestones were kept and inlaid into the walls.
One of the stones seems to be the grave of a Portuguese surgeon bearing Latin inscriptions. There’s another gravestone of a priest, Father Hyacinth, carved with a curious number 1691/2, likely referring to the year he died. Of course, the gravestone of queen Henrietta Maria is also here.
Have any questions about these cemeteries in London or others you might have thought to visit? Let me know in the comments!