You Can’t Walk Around London’s Cemeteries Without Seeing Someone Famous (and Dead)

A tour of the city’s dead can unearth some fascinating stories

Grave of George Eliot on Highgate Cemetery (Luise Berg-Ehlers / Alamy Stock Photo)
smithsonian.com

Sheldon Goodman was standing beside the granite tomb of the Duke of Cambridge when he felt the stranger’s eyes upon him.

It was a crisp, spring day and the winding paths of west London’s Kensal Green Cemetery, thick with ivy and ornate stones, were mostly empty. From the corner of his eye, he spied a woman who seemed to be walking his way.

But Goodman paid little attention. He’d come specifically to see the duke, Prince George of Cambridge, a grandson of George III and cousin of Queen Victoria. The duke, whose title was revived for Prince William, had refused an arranged marriage and shares the tomb with his wife, an actress. The two lay not far from author Wilkie Collins and French tightrope walker Charles Blondin, who famously cooked and ate an omelet over Niagara Falls.

Cold fingers fumbling with his camera, stories swimming through his mind, Goodman snapped photos until the sound of his own name stopped him.

“Are you Sheldon?”

He looked up, surprised. The stranger, it turned out, was a fan.

In 2013, Goodman and a friend started the Cemetery Club blog, a place to ruminate on “merry, little jaunts” through London’s cemeteries. But what began on a whim has become a mission: a modern day grave hunter’s ode to forgotten and faded lives in some of the city’s most overlooked and story-rich spaces.

To Goodman, they are “museums of the people, libraries of the dead.”

“I consider them as much a part of life as a maternity ward.”

He’s explored dozens across London - losing count at 50 - including each of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ that rim the city. Modeled on Père Lachaise in Paris, these garden cemeteries were created beginning in the 1830s as London’s population swelled and churchyard burial grounds grew dangerously full.

On the blog, Goodman conjures London’s past in paragraphs dense with detail. He describes faces and fashion as seen in old photos; he gives voice to his subjects using their own words, quoted from letters or newspaper articles or old film reels. Despite the research, Goodman’s posts are stories, not lectures, and paced like a Victorian novel:

“The train arrived on the platform and the passengers of the middle carriage, like all the other carriages, disembarked to carry on with the rest of their evenings. Thirteen people were in that carriage. One would not live to see the following day.”

So begins Goodman’s tribute to Countess Teresa Lubienska, a Polish Holocaust survivor whose murder on a London Underground platform was never solved.

Among his fans are scientists, heritage junkies and historians who read the site, from Britain and as far as Africa, Malaysia, and the U.S. Goodman serves as their intrepid explorer, leading tours through tall grass and over buckled earth to find stories that conjure London’s past.

In Hampstead Cemetery, he discovers Joseph Lister, the surgeon whose work with carbolic acid helped pioneer antiseptic treatment and who chose the small cemetery over Westminster Abbey in order to be buried with his wife. From Chiswick Old Cemetery, he writes about the grave of Ugo Foscolo, an exiled Italian poet who fled Austria’s occupation of Lombardy and Venice at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The tomb is simple – and also empty. Foscolo was eventually recognized for his patriotism, and his remains returned to Italy in 1871 for burial in the church of Sante Croce in Florence. In Nunhead Cemetery, beneath a canopy of trees, a tall obelisk inscribed with a giant flower etching marks the grave of Samuel Broome, the 19th-century gardener who, for 40-years, cultivated the Inner Temple Gardens. The 3-acre space is still maintained within The Temple, a cluster of buildings in central London housing two of the city’s four medieval legal societies. Broome’s plot is among Goodman’s favorite discoveries.

“[Broome] specialized in chrysanthemums,” Goodman marveled. “He was a pioneer of them in this country, cross breeding several varieties. It’s down to him that people have them in their garden.”

Goodman’s passion for cemeteries, and the stories within, stem from a childhood of Sunday visits to his grandfathers’ graves. Each week, he played among the buttercups and cast a curious eye on the unfamiliar names around him. And, here, he began to wonder.

“Even at that young age, I was intrigued: ‘We go to this grave, why don’t we go to those graves? Who are all these other people, what are their stories and what did they do with their lives?’”

In 2013, he started seeking answers. One day, among the arcades and catacombs of Brompton Cemetery, he idly took out his phone and began to type in names. Snippets of mini-worlds populated by Victorian citizens started to appear.

“It developed from there,” he said. “Anytime I had a day off from work, it’d be, ‘Right, time to go to the cemetery and see what I can find.’”

And though he’s not the only writer extolling the beauty of cemeteries, what sets Goodman apart is that the blog is more than a chronicle of fascinating tales. He wants his readers to join him on the hunt. 

His Cemetery Club aspires to be just that: a club. He crowdsources knowledge, engaging readers through social media in an ongoing conversation about what they see in their own worlds. They know him, like the stranger in the cemetery, by first name.

He seeks their stories. Guests posts have arrived from an ancient burial ground in the Scottish Highlands; from Arnos Vale, a Victorian cemetery in Bristol; and from Worcester Cathedral, which holds the tomb of Prince Arthur Tudor, King Henry VIII’s doomed older brother.

One London reader invited Goodman to visit Queen Mary University to see, hidden within campus walls, the remaining quarter of a Sephardic Jewish cemetery opened in 1733.

The vibrant lives he and his readers discovered often contrasted with their settings among crumbled and crooked stones, hidden by wild buddleia and ivy. Goodman realized stories were being lost.

“In British cemeteries, you get a sense that, indeed, the passage of time has stopped,” he said. “Time has moved on for these people, and so many people before them. They are in the process of being forgotten.”

Now, Goodman aims to be the storyteller bringing the decidedly analog world found among stone and dirt and ash vividly to life.

He spends hours on the research, following his curiosity down rabbit holes in the British Library. He scours the internet for old documentary clips and images, and sifts through digitized newspaper archives that stretch back to the 18th century. Using what he finds, he writes stories for the blog and vignettes for Instagram, films biography segments beside graves, and maps out cemetery tours for the public.

Goodman’s effort to create community drew Samantha Perrin to the club last year. She’d been a volunteer guide at Highgate Cemetery in North London for 12 years, winding tours past its best-known residents, including Karl Marx and George Eliot, but yearning to explore unknown names. Goodman’s off-the-beaten-path approach appealed to her and she began to partner with him on the blog. Since then, she’s researched pet cemeteries, a law clerk who died on Bloody Sunday in Trafalgar Square and the Short brothers, aviation pioneers whose lives read like pages torn from an adventure book.

“If I had all the time in the world, I would research every single stone,” said Perrin, who is pursuing a graduate degree in Victorian studies. “There are hundreds of stories waiting.”

October, naturally, is a busy month for the Cemetery Club. Goodman and Perrin will lecture at the National Archives during its annual ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ evening, focusing on stories behind Edwardian graves. They’ll participate in London’s Month of the Dead, and give three torch lit tours through Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park for Halloween.

On a recent tour at Hampstead Cemetery, three dozen participants ignored light drizzle to hear stories of a circus owner and sea lions, the music engineer who first recorded the famous opera singer Enrico Caruso, and a Russian aristocrat whose search for a wife Goodman cheerfully compared to a modern-day Tinder binge.

The tour ended at the grave of Marie Lloyd, a turn-of-the-century music hall singer, where Goodman sang an acapella rendition of one of Lloyd’s best known songs, “When I take my Morning Promenade.”

Afterwards, as always, he invited everyone to keep talking over pints in a local pub. A dozen people gathered, peppering him and Perrin with questions and buzzing over the stories they’d heard.

Goodman sat with Alfredo Carpineti and his partner Chris Jones. It was their second tour and they were hooked.

“All these people are alive again through their stories,” said Carpineti.

Goodman opened his binder to reveal dozens of others not mentioned on the tour, including a Gaelic singer, a biblical painter and a musicologist.

Carpineti, an astrophysicist, scanned the list and gasped.

Joseph Rotblat? He was there?”

Rotblat was a Polish physicist who withdrew from the Manhattan Project. In 1995, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to end the development of nuclear weapons.

The cemetery – like so many -  teemed with stories, too many to tell at once.

“I could go on for hours,” Goodman said.

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