Feature: To die for

Marc Zakian digs up extraordinary stories about our burial grounds

From ancient tombs to graveyards, Britain’s burial grounds tell a fascinating story. There are 15 dead Britons for every one living. More than half a billion souls, entombed across landscapes, graveyards, churches and cemeteries. Their lives are part of our history and their resting places and memorials at the heart of every city and village in the country


1n 1793 two young men chased a rabbit into a hole in the Mendip Hills. Digging down to follow the creature, they were amazed to find themselves in an underground passage leading to a lofty cavern. They had stumbled on Aveline Hole, a cave crowded with skeletons all carefully placed side by side some 10,000 years ago. It is Britain’s earliest known cemetery. Nearby Gough’s Cave is home to another Stone Age skeleton. Known as ‘Cheddar Man’ – named for the gorge, not a penchant for cheese – this ancient Briton was buried alone in the chamber around 7100 BCE, possibly after being murdered.

Wayland's Smithy

Wayland’s Smithy


“To the spirits of the dead. For Lucius Annaius Firmius, who lived five years, two months, six days, six hours.” This epitaph is found on a 1,800-year-old Roman tombstone in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. It was not from the boy’s family, but from his owner to her ‘dearest household slave’. Lucius’s story endures because the Romans brought writing to Britain, inscribing their names, ages and achievements on hundreds of surviving tombstones.

One of the most spectacular of these Romano-British tombs was uncovered in London in 1999. This perfectly preserved skeleton of a wealthy young woman was sealed inside a decorated lead coffin and stone sarcophagus. Nicknamed the ‘Roman Princess’, she died in London around 350 CE and was buried just outside the city walls, as was Roman custom. The coffin is now displayed in the Museum of London.

Her funeral would have been a lavish ceremony, the body carried on a bier, her family following behind with mimes, musicians and professional mourners – banshees who would wail, rip out their hair and scratch and beat their faces.

Roman funerals were frequently more extravagant than their weddings. Roman funeral traditions have remained with us for two thousand years. They cremated or buried their dead, read eulogies, built tombs and sarcophagi (literally a ‘flesh-eating’ coffin), held wakes, offered mourning feasts and commemorations.

Known as ‘Cheddar Man’ – named for the gorge, not a penchant for cheese – this ancient Briton was buried alone in the chamber around 7100 BCE, possibly after being murdered


The Berkshire Downs are home to a phantom blacksmith. According to legend, when a passing horse loses its shoe the rider should leave the animal at Wayland’s ancient stone monument with a few coins. On return, the horseman will find the money gone and the horse newly shod.

The mysteries of Wayland’s Smithy go back to the Stone Age. Built in 3500 BCE as a burial site, it is part of the magnificent Severn-Cotswold series of Neolithic burial barrows.

The best preserved is West Kennet Long Barrow. Taking 15,700 people-hours to build and used for over a millennium, the barrow once housed dozens of burials tucked into stone niches, their bones sometimes removed from the bodies for display.

West Kennet is part of a Neolithic landscape that includes the largest man-made mound in Europe at Silbury Hill. As tall and ancient as the Egyptian pyramids, it is encircled by burial monuments.

There are thousands of Bronze Age barrows across England – some standing solitary in farmers’ fields, others secreted in our cities. At London’s Hampstead Heath there is a grave mound intriguingly named Boadicea’s Grave. Is the legendary Celtic warrior buried here? Sadly not, she died 1000 years after the barrow was built.


When John Trevelyan died in 1492 it cost £4 to feed the mourners. There were the bell ringers at £1.10s (the more rings, the quicker you got to heaven), wax candles at £1.6s, £2 for the wine and the priest’s oil at £4 (priests were forbidden to charge for a funeral, but made good money on the sundries).

The deceased would need a grave – 8d for an adult, 4d for a child, 180d for a spot by the altar – and a monument, £8 for a simple brass and marble figure. All this added up to around a year’s income for the average medieval citizen, but was money well spent – a good Christian funeral protected your soul from the devil.

Large churches monopolised their lucrative burial rights, so anybody who died in a remote parish had to be brought to the mother church. This could involve journeys over miles of hilly countryside. To make it easier, Better to be buried with your feet facing east and on the south side of the church. Lucifer stalks the dark and sinister north side, where outcasts or murderers were often interred. © nerthuz/Fotolia 19 Death of Prince Albert churches created ‘corpse roads’. Traces of these may still be found across Britain, public paths with names such as ‘Church-way’ or ‘Kirk-way Field’ are signs of former funerary roads.

The Lake District has an old corpse road leading from Swindale to Shap Abbey – the last body was borne down this track in 1736. The nearby funeral way running from Rydal to Ambleside still has its coffin stone, where the body was placed while tired pall-bearers rested.

The ‘Lych way’ is a track southwest of Devil’s Tor on Dartmoor in Devon. The deceased from remote moorland homesteads were taken along this track to Lydford church for burial. There are legends of phantom funeral processions stalking this path at night.

Marx Tomb, Highgate

Marx Tomb, Highgate


Enon Chapel opened near London’s Strand in 1832. Underneath was a 29 x 59ft crypt where some 12,000 bodies were interred, with only a wooden floor between the vaults and worshippers above.

The chapel’s minister offered bargain basement burials until a scandal broke in 1844. A dustman admitted to removing loads of ‘waste’ from the crypt.

The building was sold to new owners who promoted musical evenings titled: Dancing on the Dead, admission 3d.

The Enon scandal was a consequence of overcrowded churchyards. During the Industrial Revolution more people died in rapidly growing cities than were baptised and the parish burial grounds became full. Parliament responded by passing an Act ‘establishing cemeteries for the Interment of the Dead’ and the suburban cemetery was born.

Glasgow, Necropolis

Glasgow, Necropolis

Victorian entrepreneurs took advantage of this opportunity. An advertisement in The Times offered six classes of funerals, from £21 for a first-class burial down to £3/5s for sixth class. Prices could be reduced ‘by dispensing with the funeral cortege through the streets of London.’ Instead, the Necropolis Company would transport the coffin by special train.

The London Necropolis Railway ran from Waterloo to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey between 1854 to 1941. At its peak, it carried more than 2,000 bodies a year. Guests could leave with their dearly departed at 11:40 am, attend the burial, have a funeral party at one of the cemetery’s two train stations (complete with home-cooked ham sandwiches and fairy cakes) and then take the same train back to London by 3:30 pm.

These Victorians kept a precise mourning etiquette. Curtains would be drawn, clocks stopped at the time of death and mirrors draped or turned to the wall. A wreath tied with black ribbons was hung on the front door to alert neighbours. The length of mourning for a widow, widower, child or parent was absolute: deep mourning for two years followed by a period of half-mourning with strict codes of dress.

Victorian Britain was in an almost permanent state of grief. Only two out of ten babies reached their second birthdays and most parents would expect to bury at least one child. This was reflected in art – a popular subject for paintings was the bereaved parent – in tokens, such as a lock of your loved one’s hair carried in a cameo, or even a post-mortem family photo with the deceased.

The Queen herself became a national symbol of mourning. Following the premature death of Prince Albert in 1861, Victoria turned grief into the chief concern of her existence. She disappeared from public view, wore widow’s black for the rest of her life and insisted on a statue of Albert featuring in all family portraits. For many people, her morbid obsession was too much – with the queen’s passing in 1901 and the loss of a generation of young men during the First World War, the British way of death could no longer consume so much of life.

Britain’s urban cemeteries are a magnificent combination of national monuments, listed buildings, works of art, urban parks, wildlife sanctuaries and commemorations

LONDON’S HIGHGATE CEMETERY opened in 1839 and was rescued from decay in the 1970s, its 170,000 burials include world famous writers, artists and industrialists. Karl Marx’s tomb has inspired many a radical’s pilgrimage, literary burials include George Eliot and science fiction novelist Douglas Adams, while punk-rock impresario Malcolm McLaren and actor Sir Ralph Richardson head up a cast of showbiz stars. The leafy and atmospheric West Side is the resting place of pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Siddal, physicist Michael Faraday, Charles Cruft of dog show fame and painter Lucian Freud.

BUNHILL FIELDS has some of history’s most radical figures lying in its unhallowed grounds. Founded in the 1660s as a cemetery for Nonconformists and Dissenters, it packed 120,000 bodies into its four acres. Burials include Pilgrim’s Progress author John Bunyan, Robinson Crusoe creator Daniel Defoe and visionary poet and artist, William Blake.

GOLDERS GREEN started in 1902 as London’s first crematorium (cremation was illegal in Britain until 1885). Open to all faiths and non-believers, it features Japanese gardens, tea-rooms and many listed buildings. Its urns contain the ashes of Dracula writer Bram Stoker, actor and comedian Peter Sellers and father of modern psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. There are memorials to pop star Marc Bolan of T Rex and Keith Moon of The Who.

KENSAL GREEN sits alongside the Grand Union canal – there were plans to bring funerals in on boats. It includes the burials of engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, writers William Makepeace Thackeray and Anthony Trollope, computer pioneer Charles Babbage and a memorial to Queen singer, Freddie Mercury.

BROMPTON CEMETERY holds hundreds of Victorians. Alongside them are the graves of several First Nations American performers who died while performing in London as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The cemetery is the resting place of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and writer Beatrix Potter who lived nearby and took the names of some of her characters from tombstones, including Mr Nutkins, Mr Brock, Jeremiah Fisher and even a Peter Rabbett. The Victorians believed that Brompton’s Egyptian style Courtoy tomb was, in fact, a time machine.

ABNEY PARK’S woody expanse contains an arboretum and cemetery. It holds the graves of William Booth – founder of The Salvation Army – and many protagonists of the anti-slavery movement. The lion tamer Frank Bostock’s glorious memorial is a much-loved local landmark.

CROSSBONES GRAVEYARD is a pauper’s burial site. While wealthy Londoners were memorialised in grand graveyards, the poor were interred with nothing to mark their passing. This south London backstreet has become a focal point for such unknown souls. Recorded in 1598 as a burial ground for ‘single women’. This is a euphemism for the prostitutes who worked in the brothels and stews that ran along the south side of the river Thames. Denied a Christian burial, Crossbones was their final resting place.

ST MARY’S CHURCH IN WHITBY, YORKSHIRE is a medieval graveyard that was the inspiration and setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. One of its graves belongs to Mr and Mrs Huntrodd. Both were born on September 19 1600, and both died September 19, 1680, within five hours of each other. The 19 September is known as Huntrodd’s Day.

WOLVERCOTE CEMETERY in Oxford houses the grave of Lord of the Rings writer, JRR Tolkien. Buried with his beloved wife, their gravestones marked with the names Lúthien and Beren, characters from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth fantasy.

HOLYWELL CEMETERY close to Wolvercote, is the resting place of Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows. A few miles from Oxford is the small parish church of Bladon whose graveyard holds the modest grave of Winston Churchill.

GLASGOW NECROPOLIS is known for its architectural monuments. According to legend, its 37-acre landscape is a symbol of Freemasonry and the signs of this secret group may be found scattered throughout the site. It features the grave of cabinet maker and poet William Miller, who wrote the children’s nursery rhyme Wee Willie Winkie.

REILIG ODHRÁIN on the remote island of Iona is Scotland’s most evocative graveyard. The cemetery stands next to the Abbey and holds the bones of 48 Scottish kings, including Macbeth (1005-1057), the murderer and usurper in William Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy.

Find an expert Blue Badge guide to show you the locations featured in this article