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Highgate Cemetery to drop tours-only rule for visitors to historic west side

Location of George Michael's grave to be kept discreet

02 July, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

THE final resting place of singer George Michael will be open to the public this summer, as Highgate Cemetery announced plans for visitors to walk unaccompanied through the historic west side of the burial ground.

But any fans of the Wham! star aiming to pay their respects will have a hard job finding his grave: it is not marked with a headstone and the cemetery will not include it in their guide or signpost the location.

Thousands of his biggest admirers arrived in Highgate village in the weeks following his death on Christmas Day in 2016, leaving a shrine on the green near his house. He was buried in the West Cemetery, which for the last 40 years visitors have only been able to see on official guided tours.

The cemetery’s chief executive Dr Ian Dungavell told the New Journal that the restrictions on exploring this part of the cemetery had been “due to concerns about unsafe trees, unstable monuments and collapsing vaults,” adding: “There have been a couple of ‘open days’ in the past when a guided tour was not mandatory, but not for a long time.”

Other notable figures buried in the western half of the cemetery include bare knuckle boxer Tom Sayers, whose grave includes a sculpture of his pet dog, writer Dame Beryl Bainbridge, Cold Comfort Farm author Stella Gibbons and actor Bob Hoskins.

Zoologist George Wombwell’s grave is marked by a sleeping lion and architectural highlights include the historic The Circle of Lebanon – a series of tombs built around a Cedar tree which pre-dates the burial ground, and the Egyptian Avenue.

The Friends of Highgate Cemetery have been looking after and repairing monuments, managing trees and clearing paths for years to protect the numerous Grade-I and -II listed monuments.

Dr Dungavell added: “It is still not 100 per cent safe but, provided visitors follow our instructions, they can visit.”

The re-opening for individual visits was first mooted last year – and with the Covid-19 pandemic closing both east and west burial grounds, Dr Dungavell said it was an opportunity to test how a non-guide system would work.

Tom Sayers’ grave

Visitors will be given half-hour slots which they can book on line from tomorrow (Friday) for visits the following weekend. Dr Dungavell said: “We’re not making a huge splash about this, because we don’t want to be overwhelmed with people – and we’d really like local people to be the first to see the bits which have been hidden away for many years.”

George Michael [Ki Price]

The cemetery has furloughed ground staff, meaning many parts will look overgrown, and with no income, the cemetery’s finances have suffered.

Guided tours in small groups are still available with one slated for next week.

Dr Dungavell said: “We think that taking one of our tours is still the best way for a first-time visitor to understand the site, and so we’ll be offering a day of tours led by our excellent volunteer guides to test how tours work while maintaining social distancing rules.”

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