A Victorian graveyard’s leafy pathways have taken on new meaning for some during the pandemic.

A Victorian graveyard’s leafy pathways have taken on new meaning for some during the pandemic.

LONDON — Vines crawl up headstones, tipping them on their side. Roots overtake tombs as if reclaiming them for the earth. On one toppled cross, a message: “Peace, Perfect Peace.”

This is the final resting place for about 170,000 Londoners, among them George Eliot, Karl Marx and Henry Moore.

Perched on a steep hillside peering over the capital city, Highgate Cemetery, a Victorian graveyard that is still in use today, is a tangle of monuments partly engulfed by a forest that has sprung up around it.

To stroll through its meandering trails is to experience a catalog of Victorian lives, the great and the small, the rogues and the upstanding citizens, as well as the Victorian way of death. Many in 19th-century Britain’s burgeoning middle classes prepared all of their working lives for a magnificent funeral and burial site as a way to prove their worthiness for entry to heaven — often leaving little or nothing for their survivors.

While that world has long since passed, for many today, Highgate is simply a welcome place of refuge from the sprawling city below, particularly in the Covid era.

“It’s this tranquil city of the dead, in contrast to the city of the living below,” said Ian Dungavell, the chief executive of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, a group that saved the site from even greater dereliction in the 1980s and now manages it.

During Britain’s first lockdown, when people were allowed to leave their homes for only necessities and exercise, the cemetery began to see a surge in visitors as Londoners looked for secluded outside spaces to escape — and to evade the virus.

The site also took on a new resonance, Dr. Dungavell said, as so many people’s lives have been touched by illness and death during the pandemic. Britain has recorded more than 160,000 deaths since it began in early 2020.

Leave a Reply