A date with death: Why a visit to Willesden Jewish Cemetery is more uplifting than morbid

Tamara Hinson discovers that Willesden Jewish Cemetery is quite alive with interest 

Thursday 15 October 2020 16:28
Comments
The historic cemetery is now close to capacity and only a handful of burials take place here every year
The historic cemetery is now close to capacity and only a handful of burials take place here every year

It’s early September and I’m standing in the middle of a 21-acre plot of land in northwest London, surrounded by 27,000 people. Given the strange times we’re in, this seems like an odd way to spend a Monday. 

However, it isn’t an illegal rave or super-sized house party, but the leafy confines of Willesden Jewish Cemetery, which recently launched a National Lottery Heritage-funded House of Life visitor experience. 

An army of volunteers, many with ancestors buried here, will lead guided tours, and events such as book readings and historical talks will provide insights into both this grade II-listed cemetery and the lives of those buried here.

Regarded as the Rolls-Royce of burial grounds, this sprawling cemetery, which opened in 1873, is the final resting place for 27,000 members of the United Synagogue – a network of British orthodox Jewish synagogues. And it’s packed with A-listers, whether it’s 23 members of the Rothschild family, jeweller HS Samuel (whose grave is a tangle of ornate, Grecian-style pillars) or DNA decoder Rosalind Franklin. 

Other notable residents include Marcus Samuel, the founder of Shell, and the notoriously cantankerous film director Michael Winner, whose tombstone bears the words: “Never a loser be, only a winner he.” The glossy slab of marble seems at odds with the weather-beaten, drunkenly angled tombstones nearby; this historic cemetery is now close to capacity and only a handful of burials take place here every year.  

Despite the current popularity of so-called tombstone tourism (50 cemeteries have received lottery funding in recent years, and Woking’s Brookwood Cemetery, the UK’s largest, recently announced plans for a Museum of Death), the House of Life’s organisers deny they’re simply jumping on the bereavement bandwagon. 

Curator Hester Adams points out that in the 1800s, people would visit cemeteries to simply walk among the graves. Willesden Jewish Cemetery, a flower-filled oasis in an ever-expanding city, was no different. It became the heart of this north London community, discovered by many after loved ones were buried here. But as it neared capacity, graves replaced greenery, and the number of burials dwindled. “The community had moved on,” says Hester.

Trees on gravestones represent a life cut short

A cemetery shaped by Jewish customs, its ornate gravestones are divided by wide pathways – Judaism dictates that members of the Jewish priesthood shouldn’t stray too close to the dead. Additionally, shade-giving trees can’t be planted graveside. The result is a spectacular sense of space, due to the vast, uninterrupted expanse of sky overhead.

But the greenery is returning. In a nod to the flowers which once bloomed here, a rose arbour is being added by gardeners, who are making the most of limited space. 

Take the burial plot of Harris Lebus, who founded Europe’s largest furniture company in the 1900s. His family plot is half empty – his descendants converted to Christianity and were buried elsewhere. Gardeners tracked down family members, who gave them permission to plant flowers in the empty space.

Flowers are being reintroduced to the cemetery

The cemetery is rich with symbolism. Hester shows me several graves topped with broken stone columns, which indicate that the internee died young. Hundreds of gravestones feature stone knots, representing eternity, and I spot several adorned with stone branches, indicating a life cut short. 

Many graves are works of art, one example being the final resting place of Maximilian Eberstadt, secretary to the legendary merchant banker Ernest Joseph Cassel. Eberstadt’s tomb was designed by artist Edward Coley Burne-Jones, who spearheaded the Pre-Raphaelite movement in the 1800s. One gravestone, sadly destroyed during the Second World War, featured a miniature Taj Mahal.  

A designer gravestone wasn’t the only must-have. Hester points to the grave of a wealthy shop keeper, metres away from the grave of a Rothschild, adding that these spots were highly sought after.  

With so many people buried here, there are endless stories to be told. Duty manager Holly Walker, who started her job in August, recently discovered her great, great grandparents were buried here. 

“I’ve also loved learning about the more notorious characters,” she says, citing Madame Rachel as one example. A Jewish lady born in London’s slums in the 1800s, Madame Rachel made her riches by stealing from the women who flocked to her Mayfair salon. She died in prison from lead poisoning (caused by the controversial beauty treatments she promoted) and is buried in an unmarked grave.

Michael Winner’s striking tombstone

But it’s not just about burial sites. In the former mortuary building, an audio soundscape provides a fascinating insight into taharah – the ritual of preparing the body for burial. In the visitor centre, I can use tablets to read about the cemetery’s most notable residents, and a calendar of events includes a virtual death cafe, book readings and workshops focusing on biographies written about those buried here. Here, death doesn’t seem quite so lifeless.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The nearest London Underground station to Willesden Jewish Cemetery is Dollis Hill, on the Jubilee line.

More information

Visit willesdenjewishcemetery.org.uk for more information. Events and guided tours are free, although donations are gratefully received.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in