£25k graves by Karl Marx: The bid to dig up London’s most competitive cemetery
Get saving, comrades — Highgate Cemetery is advertising new plots, for a price
Morning — even the dead in London have roommates, apparently. We’ve got a bit of a morbid story for you today: Highgate Cemetery has caused a stir this week with news it’s selling new graves for £25,000 near its most famous resident, Karl Marx. Irony aside, the announcement speaks to the big changes planned for the north London cemetery as well as other graveyards across the capital, as they find novel ways to avoid running out of space. The bid to dig up Highgate Cemetery is explained after your Sunday round-up below.
Plus: the mayor splurges, a major High Court ruling, and ‘drunk’ undercover cops.
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What we’ve spied
🤑 There’s nothing like a London mayoral election to spur on some big cash giveaways. Sadiq Khan’s been turning on the spending taps over the past few days, after drawing up his final budget before the City Hall election in May. Here are the best bits:
Tube and London bus fares will be frozen until 2025. Khan is keeping ticket prices at their current level for the next year — a marked contrast to national fares, which are due to go up by 4.9% from April. The mayor says the freeze will save the typical London commuter about £90 a year, though it’s coming at a cost of £123m to the public purse. “Not only will this put money back in people’s pockets, making transport more affordable for millions of Londoners, but will encourage people back on to our public transport network,” the mayor said. It’s his fifth fare freeze in the eight years he’s been in office.
More toilets are coming to the Tube. Khan is earmarking £3m to deliver more toilet facilities across the city’s transport network, and TfL will now carry out a feasibility study to identify the best spots. London’s ‘loo deserts’ are well documented — less than a quarter of stations in zones 1 to 3 currently have toilets.
Free school dinners at all London primary schools are being extended. Khan had first announced universal primary school meals for the 2023/24 academic year last February, but last week he confirmed he’d be extending the scheme for another academic year. The latest cash announcement means schools will now have £3 per meal accounted for in public funding.
The Met Police is getting more cash to fix its institutional problems. It’s the first time Khan has drawn up a budget since the Baroness Casey Review into London’s police last March, which identified wide-ranging problems in the force around racism, sexism and homophobia. The mayor is now giving the Met an extra £76m to fund its ‘New Met for London’ reform plans, which will see community policing boosted and new efforts to win back Londoners’ trust in policing.
Overall Khan is planning an extra £512m in spending — much to the annoyance of City Hall Conservatives, who’ve been wheeling out the old ‘magic money tree’ attack line in response. They’ve also been digging up dirt on the Khan administration’s slightly more suspect spending from the past financial year, including a £3,000 Greggs bill for transport staff. But apparently the new stuff is being partly funded by an unexpected windfall in business rate revenues across the capital. There’ll also be a knock-on impact on your bills though — Khan is raising his share of London council tax by 8.6% from April, meaning the average household in the capital will be paying an extra £37 a year in tax to City Hall.
🛍️ Confusion gave way to devastation in east London this week when a much-loved market unexpectedly shut out traders overnight. The Market Village in Stratford is, as of writing, completely closed down after the owners, Unex, suddenly went into administration. It means the market’s 60 traders are now unable to run their businesses. Samantha Scott, the owner of a Caribbean takeaway in the market, has started a petition calling on Unex to re-open the Village. She told the BBC: “We thought it was a joke. I had done all my food prepping for the next day. Nothing was said and there was no inkling to suggest it would be our last day.” Market Village has been serving customers in Stratford since 1974, long before the mega Westfield shopping centre was built nearby.
⚖️ One of the last residents of a council estate in Southwark set for an all-private redevelopment has won her High Court challenge against the plans. On Wednesday a judge sided with Aysen Dennis, a resident of Aylesbury Estate for 30 years who had argued Southwark council and developer Notting Hill Genesis had misused planning law when signing off on the redevelopment. The High Court ruling doesn’t kill off the project, but it may force a rethink of the plans to demolish 327 social rent flats and replace them with a 26-storey all-private tower at the site of Dennis’s home. Dennis has long campaigned against the redevelopment, which she says amounts to “social cleansing”, and at one point opened up her flat as an anti-gentrification exhibition. Last year she was relocated off Aylesbury Estate to a new property by Southwark council — a move she believes was intended to stop her campaigning, but the council denies this. Dennis now says she’s preparing a big party at her home to celebrate the ruling.
🚲 Women cyclists in London have spoken out about the gendered abuse they regularly face on the capital’s roads. “A complete stranger walked up behind me and slapped me on the arse. It was so hard it bruised through my clothing,” says one cyclist, in a video released by the London Cycling Campaign off the back of a new report it’s published this week. Titled ‘What Stops Women Cycling in London?’, the report surveyed 1,000 women who cycle in the city and found that “get off the road” was the most common form of verbal abuse they’d experienced, and that sometimes the abuse was gendered with words like “bitch” and “slut”. 93% of respondents said drivers had used their vehicles to intimidate them, and for 77% this happened at least once a month. More than one in five women said they gave up cycling in London temporarily or permanently after the incidents.
🍸 More trouble in London’s clubland — a private members club in Soho founded by famous actors and musicians has gone bust. The House of St Barnabas in Soho Square, whose founding members include Peter Capaldi, Brian Cox, Jarvis Cocker and Andrew Weatherall, has suddenly closed amid a financial crisis. Alongside its reputation for donating its profits to its associated homelessness charity, the club was also known for being the base of the Labour Together group of MPs, who plotted to replace Jeremy Corbyn with Sir Keir Starmer. While we’re in clubland: momentum is building for the campaign to let women into the all-male Garrick Club, after an internal poll of members found a majority in favour of the rule change for the first time.
🌉 Much grumbling over the continued closure of Hammersmith Bridge this week, after figures showed the repair bill has soared to £250m. The 137-year-old bridge has been shut to motor vehicles since 2019 when “dangerous micro-factures” were discovered in its pedestals, and revelations over the whopping cost of repair has now raised fears the bridge will never re-open to traffic. The bridge was also shut to pedestrians and cyclists too in 2020 as the cracks worsened, but they were let back on in 2021. Some are fine with cars never coming back though — like one green charity that laid out a plan last year for installing electric pods to shuttle people across alongside pedestrians.
👮 The Met Police has apologised to a man after homeless people’s tents were destroyed in central London at the end of last year. Anthony Sinclair had been arrested by officers as they oversaw the clearance of the tents from a street Camden in November — footage of the tents being thrown into a bin lorry sparked outrage. Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley has now apologised to Sinclair and admitted officers acted unlawfully when they issued a dispersal order outside University College London Hospital, where people had been rough sleeping. Elsewhere in policing: the Met is still appealing for more information after a newborn baby was found in a shopping bag in a street in Newham on Thursday evening.
😬 One to watch: Barking and Dagenham council, which has been picked out by the BBC as a London borough with staggering levels of debt. B&D had £1bn in outstanding debt in the last financial year — which works at as £4,735 per resident, the highest of all town halls in the capital and the 8th highest across the 386 councils in the UK. It’s not far behind the likes of Thurrock and Woking, councils that are planning major cuts after going effectively bankrupt over the last few years. B&D hasn’t gone bankrupt yet, but residents are facing the 5% maximum rise in council tax possible from April under plans to shore up the borough’s finances. Time will tell if they’ll meet a similar fate to residents in Croydon, who saw a 15% rise in council tax last year due to debt problems and are now staring down the barrel of £30m in cuts to local services.
🔍 And finally, we leave you with:
What Lloyd’s London office now looks like on a Friday
The return of the Pengest Munch after a seven-month hiatus
Watch thieves caught in Soho by an undercover cop pretending to be drunk
London boroughs as women, according to AI
A window falling out of a bus in Croydon
An east London exhibition recreating Hamas’s tunnels under Gaza
Critiques of the mayor’s ‘maaate’ ads
Communist plots in north London
Like in life, death in London can be expensive, as one story suggests this week. Highgate Cemetery has announced it’s offering new graves near Karl Marx for upwards of £25,000. At around five times the average cost of a burial in the capital, the irony hasn’t been lost on many. The cemetery is hallowed ground for London lefties, with plenty of revolutionaries and radical thinkers buried there who’d probably wince at that price tag. But while Highgate has long been pricey, a spot in the north London graveyard has become especially hard to get in recent years. It’s a trend that’s affecting burial spots all across the capital, as cemeteries within the city run out of space.
Yet the charity that manages Highgate reckons it’s got a solution — digging up its oldest residents and creating new burial space above them. Communal living for London’s dead. Here’s everything to know about the plan.
The problem: Highgate Cemetery, like many London graveyards, is running out of space. The cemetery first opened in 1839 as part of a wave of commercial graveyards created in the capital during the 19th century that would become known as the ‘Magnificent Seven’. Others in the gang are Kensal Green, West Norwood, Nunhead, Brompton, Abney Park and Tower Hamlet cemeteries. They were set up in response to the growing population at the time and increasing pressure on the city’s inner churchyards. And in the nearly 200 years since, 173,000 people have been buried in Highgate. Many are famous — aside from Marx, there’s musician George Michael, author Douglas Adams, and Hollywood actress Jean Simmons.
Highgate has been London’s priciest cemetery for a while now. In 2017, a study by the company Funeralbooker found it to be the most expensive in the entire UK, with a burial fee of over £18,000 at the time — around nine times the national average. The closest contenders were burials in Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensal Green cemeteries, which clocked in at more like £12,000, and the average price across all of London was around £4,000. Partly explaining Highgate’s price tags is the fact it’s open to anybody — it’s run by a charity, rather than a local authority, meaning there’s no restriction on residency. In Highgate’s own words: “We are a cemetery for the world”. Competition is so fierce that you typically can only buy a plot in Highgate for “immediate use” i.e. you’re already dead and your funeral is imminent. You can only book a grave in advance at Highgate if you’re over 80 and terminally ill. Dark.
But plenty of people have been willing to pay — so much so that, by 2021, that Victorian problem of space was back. The charity that runs the cemetery, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, was warning it only had 75 of its 50,000 spots left. It estimated that space in the eastern half of the cemetery would run out in two and a bit years, and that the pricier western half would be completely full in 12 years.
Meanwhile, caring for the aging site is also becoming more challenging, as monuments crumble and the greenery overgrows. Highgate Cemetery and the Friends are completely self-funded, relying on a mix of income from selling burial spots as well as income from visitors. The charity had taken over the cemetery in the 1980s, after the previous, private owners — the London Cemetery Company — had struggled to make a buck gravedigging. Indeed, for part of the 1970s the cemetery fell into complete disrepair, and the gates were shut to the public. Though they rescued it in the end, the Friends fear drastic action is needed to keep their conservation going.
And then there’s been a more recent need for extra security measures. Back in 2019, the Tomb of Marx was vandalised two times in the space of the month, with its plaque chipped at by a hammer and the words “doctrine of hate” daubed across the monument in orange paint. CCTV cameras were eventually installed to watch the Tomb and deter future vandals. Even increasing extreme weather has become a new threat — the Friends have considered putting heaters by some graves to protect monuments against the cold.
The plan: For the past few years, the Friends have been seeking more cash and more legal powers to enact a grand plan — what they’re calling Unlocking Highgate Cemetery. It’s a three-pronged strategy that will see the cemetery create additional burial space, build new visitor facilities and spruce up monuments and greenery in the coming years.
A key piece of the puzzle was put in place in 2022, when the Friends got a special bill passed in Parliament giving them new legal powers The first was the power to “extinguish rights of burial” — more plainly, to take over abandoned plots in the graveyard. Hundreds of graves in Highgate Cemetery were bought up by Victorians but never actually had a body buried beneath them. The Friends want to bring them back into use, but the trouble is that many of the original documents proving ownership of these plots, which sometimes date back to more than 100 years ago, are now lost to time. The 2022 Highgate Cemetery Act now gives the Friends the power to take over any plot that’s not been used for at least 75 years. There’s strings attached though — it must put out a public alert in advance and give any long-lost owners of the deeds six months to come forward before pressing ahead.
The second thing the Act did was give the Friends the “power to disturb human remains”. It’s not quite as ominous as it sounds — it basically gives the Friends the power to embark on a process known in the gravedigging trade as ‘lifting and deepening’. When an appropriate plot is found, remains are removed and the grave is excavated to a deeper depth. The original remains are then re-interned, but then additional space is created above for a new burial. The graves near the old Marx grave are part of the first batch the Friends want to lift and deepen.
These powers aren’t normally given to cemeteries in the UK, but the growing pressures of London mean a few other cemeteries in the capital have been granted this special permission too, like New Southgate Cemetery. The Friends had exhausted some other options beforehand — most infamously with the Mound in the 1990s. Located in the eastern section of the cemetery, it’s a very literal mound of soil that was piled up 15 to 20 feet high on top of a large area of common graves. It created 215 spots — but at the cost of depressing neighbours in the bordering housing estate, who ended up getting elevated views of all the new burials taking place. A giant hedge was erected to try to block them out.
The final piece of the puzzle came this week, with the announcement on Monday that the National Lottery Heritage Fund is donating £100,000 to the Unlocking Highgate Cemetery project. It’s enough for the Friends to push forward with their plans — and to start advertising the first plots near Marx.
Why don’t they just let the cemetery fill up? The Friends are keen to keep Highgate Cemetery an active burial site — in part to avoid the cemetery becoming what some have called a ‘Disneyland of death’. Back in 2016, a row broke out amongst trustees over the future direction of the cemetery, with one quitting the board because she felt management was too intent on wooing death tourists. Those fears weren’t exactly allayed in 2020 with the revelation Highgate Cemetery had plans for a new gift shop. But from the Friends’ point of view, income from the cemetery’s 100,000 annual visitors is crucial. It costs around £800,000 to run the cemetery each year, and selling burial sites now typically only covers half of that cost. And if the sale of burial sites stopped completely, the Friends would have to find ways to boost its visitor income — driving more footfall, creating more amenities or potentially upping admission fees.
But for the Friends’ chief executive, Ian Dungavell, it’s not just about finances. “A living, working cemetery is really important,” he told members of the House of Lords in an oral evidence session on the Highgate Cemetery Bill. “You end up with a cemetery which is disconnected from the community around it by those ties of love and affection that bond us together, and so the character of people’s relationship with the cemetery changes. It has more casual visitors, that is people who just come to look rather than feel connected with it …. If it came to be thought of as a spooky Victorian relic with no connection to the present generation, I think that would be a great loss”. Keeping a connection to the living is why Highgate Cemetery is only looking at graves unused for 75 years or more — enough time to let two or three generations grieve.
The tension between mourners and visitors at Highgate was recently demonstrated in controversy over one of the cemetery’s more famous residents. For five years after his death on Christmas day in 2016, the location of George Michael’s grave in Highgate was kept a closely guarded secret, in part to protect his family’s privacy and give them space to mourn. The cemetery feared his plot would become overwhelmed with tributes from fans, particularly around the time of his funeral, and took to playing coy, even denying it had any information on Michael on its website. It was only in 2020 that a headstone was finally placed on Michael’s plot, which is by his mother’s grave, and the Friends started to include it on tours. But even today, Highgate still discourages photos or tributes at the headstone.
The reaction: Among those living nearby to Highgate, the plans seem to have majority support, at least according to the Friends’ own consultation work. Their recent surveys found 76% of locals feel it’s important Highgate Cemetery remains open for burials, 69% feel it’s acceptable to reuse abandoned graves and 64% feel it’s acceptable to bury existing remains deeper to create more space on top. The stakes are particularly high for the community, as Highgate is the only cemetery still operational in the borough of Camden.
This week’s revelations over the price tags have caused a stir though. “£25,000 for a burial plot next to Karl Marx? The philosopher would turn in his grave,” wrote Zoe Williams in the Guardian. She points out that plots in Gap Road Cemetery in Merton, south-west London, start at £1,545 for cremation and £4,525 for burial. “Whatever kind of communist you are, even the modern kind – the fully automated luxury communist – couldn’t justify such a status purchase,” she continues. “If you were a very determined anti-communist with a ton of money, you could get buried next to Marx just to besmirch the dignity of his resting place.”
One last point: for many religious groups, keeping remains undisturbed is particularly important. But the Friends says they’ve been engaged with local Catholic and Anglican priests as well as the rabbi from the Highgate synagogue to discuss the impact of the plans.
What next: The Friends have said they’ll be submitting a planning application with the local borough council in the coming year for parts of the Unlocking Highgate Project. In the meantime, there’s now a six-month grace period on the graves by Marx, where any potential owners of the deeds can get in touch to object. The full list is here, if you fancy a punt at finding a long-lost relative.
And one last thing: we couldn’t cover Highgate Cemetery without mentioning our favourite story from the area. In the early 2010s, two wallabies — mini-kangaroo creatures native to Australia — were found wandering about the cemetery. One later died though after a foot operation. No word yet if Unlocking Highgate Cemetery will bring the wallabies back.
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