Fatal attractions

Graveyards are not just for the dead and bereaved. They are fascinating places and have always attracted visitors. Indeed, guidebooks have been published for many cemeteries. These days, interest is gathering pace and locations large and small are responding.

Many of the country’s most renowned cemeteries make the most of their historical, architectural and social significance by offering organised tours that attract thousands of visitors every year. People come from all over the world to find out more about famous lives (and deaths) and experience the fascinating atmosphere of these unique sites.

Highgate Cemetery

One prominent burial ground is Highgate Cemetery in London. It is divided into East and West cemeteries. The East Cemetery features one of London’s most visited graves – that of philosopher Karl Marx who died in 1883.

The West Cemetery contains, among other attractions, the grave of bare-knuckle prize-fighter Tom Sayers, The Terrace Catacombs, Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon.

Nick Powell, Visitor Experience Manager at Highgate, said: “People come from all over the world – we get a lot of visitors from China, Europe, the US and Canada. Altogether there are over 80,000 a year, and we don’t advertise.

“The East Cemetery can be visited on a self-guided basis, and we provide a free map to help visitors find their way around. To visit the West cemetery you need to take a guided tour. These last about 70 minutes and take place every day, but you need to check availability on our website.

“We arrange group tours, as well as events and talks. Almost everyone who visits comes away saying ‘I wasn’t expecting it to be as good as that.’”


Cathays Cemetery

In Wales, Cathays Cemetery in the heart of Cardiff offers free regular guided walks, as well as other occasional events.

The cemetery includes the resting place of talented Welsh boxer Jim Driscoll, numerous mayors and lord mayors of Cardiff, and prestigious shipowners. There are also a number of important war graves.

Opened in 1859, the cemetery covers approximately 110 acres, and has been awarded a green flag for its ‘contribution to city life’.

Originally there were two chapels, one for Episcopalian denominations and one for Nonconformists. A Catholic chapel was built a few years later (but demolished for safety reasons in the 1980s).

The two remaining chapels had fallen into a state of disrepair, and were cordoned off for safety reasons for many years. However, in 2009 the roofs were restored inside and out.

Tours are organised by the Friends of Cathays Cemetery and the group is keen see the two chapels fully restored.

Glasgow Necropolis

In 2005 – the year when The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis was established – a Doors Open event saw 300 people turn up to look around this famous city site. Given that clear demand, the Friends have been organising regular and bespoke tours ever since.

These take place all year round. There are three every month: one takes place on a Friday evening for a maximum of 20 people, the other two take place on a weekend (30 maximum). It’s also possible to arrange bespoke tours.

Ruth Johnston of the Friends said: “The Necropolis opened as a cemetery in 1833 and in the 37-acre site there are over 50,000 burials and 3,500 surviving memorials designed by some of Glasgow’s most famous architects including David Hamilton, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and Charles Rennie Macintosh.”

More than 157 of the memorials list at least one family member who died as a result of the First World War. There’s a Remembrance Day Tour every November and a printed map with burial locations.

Ruth added: “This Victorian garden cemetery was designed for visitors to be uplifted not only by the architecture, sculpture and designed landscape, but by the people from all walks of life who are buried here and their achievements.”

All donations from the tours go to conservation and restoration work. So far, this has included repairs to the largest of the mausolea, re-erection of fallen monuments, path repairs, and an ongoing photographic and stone condition survey of all 3,500 monuments.


City of the Dead, Edinburgh

In Scotland’s capital there are some less serious tours operated for the benefit of Edinburgh’s many visitors and locals looking for scary entertainment.

The City of the Dead Haunted Graveyard Tour is a daily night-time event described as combining “the weirdest history with the wildest stories and wickedest humour”. This tour has a gift shop located in a graveyard funeral parlour and access to Edinburgh’s Covenanter’s Prison and the Black Mausoleum in Greyfriars Graveyard, apparently the “lair of the world famous Mackenzie Poltergeist”.

Not surprisingly, there are special tours at Halloween and it is possible to arrange customised tours, including ones for children.

City Cemetery, Belfast

The City Cemetery in Belfast is open all year round and has a walking trail developed with the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

The cemetery was designed by surveyor and landscape gardener William Gay of Bradford who arranged its road network in the form of a bell. The design made the cemetery a desirable final resting-place for well-to-do Belfast folk.

Since 1869, more than 250,000 burials have taken place. They include William Pirrie, Chairman of Harland & Wolff shipyard, which built the Titanic; tobacco baron Thomas Gallaher; Frank Workman, founder of the Workman Clarke shipyard; Dr Thomas Andrews, a medical practitioner and chemist whose pioneering work led to the development of modern refrigeration; and Alexander Hogg, one of the great photographers of the early twentieth century.

The cemetery captures the diversity, breadth and complexity of the city, with separate sections set aside for Protestant, Catholic and Jewish burials, as well as a Poor Ground.

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin

There are 1.5 million people buried in Glasnevin Cemetery – that’s more than the current population of Dublin and equal to approximately one third of the current population of the Republic of Ireland.

This is only one of the eye-opening facts about the cemetery, a visit to which is number two on the list of ‘Things to do in Dublin’ according to Trip Advisor.

Operated by the Glasnevin Trust, there are two different tours every day: a general historical tour and a 1916 Rising tour. It’s also possible to arrange private tours that allow you to choose from a variety of themes from women’s history to military history and literature.

Tour guide Niall Bracken said: “We first introduced our tours eighteen years ago and they are extremely popular with visitors and local people.

Our general historical tour covers 1832 to the present day and includes Irish historical figures such as Roger Casement, Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell, Eamon De Valera and Michael Collins.

“On our daily 2.30 tours we include a speech originally said in 1915 by one of the most famous people in Irish history, Patrick Pearse. The speech catapulted him into the public eye and is said to be the spark that lit the fire for the rebellion of Easter 1916.”

“The sheer scale of the cemetery takes people by surprise and lots are intrigued to know that when it was first founded grave robbing was a major issue.”

Surprise is one of the most common reactions from visitors who take the chance to undertake one of these popular tours. However, with hundreds of years of history and millions of stories to tell it’s perhaps no shock that our cemeteries and graveyards are becoming significant attractions in their own right.

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