The month of the Dead – West Norwood Cemetery

We’re halfway through the month of October already. This is one of my favourite, if not my favourite, time of the year. I love fall and well… the countdown to Halloween. I’m definitely a fan of ghost stories, of lost souls, always curious about the rituals different countries have used and currently still undertake when it comes to saying goodbye to life. What death represents to cultures has a lot to say about the way people live.

One of my favourite things to do, since I moved to London, is exploring Victorian Cemeteries – and October brings the perfect light and weather to do so. Plus, the events of London’s Month of the Dead are plenty – and this year I finally went to visit the West Norwood Cemetery – one of the seven magnificent victorian cemeteries around London. The tour focused on Gothic Revival and took us through the main highlights of this place, unveiling the stories behind some of the most prominent people buried there.

I quite like Victorian cemeteries precisely because of the Gothic revival architecture we find there, less focused on saints and Christian crucifixes, and leaning towards the mystical, symbolism, telling us something more personal about the family or the person who has left the world of the living. Located in South East London, West Norwood Cemetery was one of the first private landscaped cemeteries in London, and it is today a site of great historical, architectural and ecological interest – as this was once the great Norwood forest.

The cemetery opened in 1837 and it got its crematorium in 1915, still operating today. All of the known Seven Magnificent Victorian Cemeteries in London opened around the same time – when the population grew at such a rate that it became impossible to continue to bury the dead in churchyards. As this cemetery was located facing the countryside, at the time way outside of central London, it attracted the attention of wealthy Victorians, who commissioned many fine mausoleums and memorials for their burial plots and vaults.

For the Victorians, death was a spectacle – making your final resting place as grandeur as possible was important. Of course, this meant death was also a huge business – depending on where in the cemetery you were to be buried (bottom/top or flank of the hill) it had a price. Yet a location as secluded as West Norwood was absolutely essential to ensure mourners could visit the graves and grieve in peace.

Unfortunately, the two Gothic chapels are no longer there – destroyed by bombing in World War II. I always get chills when someone points out that I am standing just where a rocket has once landed – aiming to destroy, aiming to kill. Once again, this a reminder, that is not the dead you should fear – the ones who can do you great harm, are living amongst us.

Have a spooky month!

Nic

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