Life after death for historic tombs

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The dead of north London's most atmospheric cemeteries, Highgate and Kensal Green, should perhaps rise up and toast Sir Jocelyn Stevens and his team at English Heritage.

Over the last 11 years, the Government's heritage quango has given grants totalling pounds 700,000 to help with repairs of monuments and other Victorian features at Highgate Cemetery endeavouring to halt structure deterioration without damaging the gentle decay which pervades the 36 acres of tombs and luxuriant growth.

Last night Sir Jocelyn, chairman of English Heritage, was the guest of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery at a ceremony to mark the completion of work in the grandiose western section which contains the most important Victorian architecture of any English cemetery. Karl Marx, its most celebrated deceased, lies in the eastern section, added in 1855.

Only last month the Dissenters' Chapel was reopened at Kensal Green, having been restored from from a crumbling ruin. EH contributed pounds 200,000.

The climax of the work at Highgate is the restoration of the Circle of Lebanon, a grade two* listed feature and its sepulchral approach along the Egyptian Avenue of family vaults.

The circle takes its name from the 300-year-old cedar at the centre of a circle of catacombs which form a giant pot for the tree. This was Valhalla for wealthy Victorians but after the First World War the cemetery started to fall into disrepair; tombs were desecrated and coffins broken into by dabblers in black magic.

Within months of the London Cemetery Company closing in 1975, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery was formed and six years later the rescue began.

Richard Quirk, the general manager, calls the repairs "managed neglect". He said: "The object has been to stop the clock of deterioration while preserving the character that age bestowed on the cemetery."