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Highgate Cemetery ‘could be full up within six years’

Public asked for views about historic burial ground's future

25 July, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

HIGHGATE Cemetery will be full up for burials within six years unless drastic action is taken, including the possibility of re-using 19th-century graves, according to a new exhibition focusing on what the future holds for the famous site.

The lack of space for new plots is among a series of pressure points which trustees say must be addressed in a new management plan, which also include the growth of trees which are wrecking some of the cemetery’s historic graves.

Chief executive Dr Ian Dungavell said the exhibition, being held in the cemetery chapel in Swain’s Lane, should be the starting point for a public debate on what to do next.

“The cemetery has been in use for 178 years and has now reached a point where important decisions need to be made about its future,” Dr Dungavell told the New Journal. “This isn’t about what we are planning to do, it’s about a conversation to see what people think the future should hold. We are saying these are some of the things we could do, what do you think? We want to ask people what direction they think the cemetery could take.”

Changes at the cemetery almost always spark local discussion and over the years there has been fiery criticism at the annual general meetings of the friends group – people who have signed up to support the burial ground, the last resting place for Karl Marx, George Eliot, Michael Faraday and, more recently, George Michael.

A common flashpoint is the balance between offering somewhere that tourists visit, and a place of quiet contemplation for those with relatives buried there. At last year’s session, there was a warning that the cemetery was at risk of becoming a “Disneyland of Death” due to attempts to draw visitors in.

Dr Dungavell said: “We rely on visitors and selling graves to keep the cemetery going. In six years’ time we will be out of burial space. Last year we sold 43 graves. Do people want more burial space? There are ways of doing this – for example some cemeteries have a system where they are exhuming graves, digging deeper, reinterring the bodies and then creating more graves above.”

Dr Ian Dungavell

He added: “There are also plots that were sold to families in the 19th century but the people who have inherited them do not know this and are not easy to trace. They could be reclaimed, or we could say we just do not have any more space left. “We could also only take cremated remains – but that again opens up other questions as the type of memorials for cremations is different to traditional graves, so it will change the look of parts of the cemetery. And if we stop having burials, we will need to find other ways of paying for the cemetery’s upkeep – for example, some cemeteries have a café or a visitors centre.”

Dr Dungavell also warned that self-seeding sycamores had taken hold over large swathes of the land, adding: “We are trying to keep a balance, but the trees are getting bigger, they are falling over, they are wrecking historic monuments and we also know the disease ash die-back is heading our way. We are spending a lot of money just treading water. For example, the western cemetery is pretty inaccessible except on guided tours. The delicate balance between benign decay and dereliction has been tipped. If we continue to allow trees to grow unchecked they will destroy the cemetery.”

Dr Dungavell said the exhibition and questionnaires would give visitors a voice as to how they want the cemetery’s trustees to deal with these issues. He added: “These are the types of decisions people need to have a role in making. There are consequences for whatever path we choose.”

The exhibition runs on Wednesdays 19 and 26 July, from 6pm to 8pm, and on Saturdays and Sundays from 22 July to 6 August 2017 from 11am to 4.30pm

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