The cemetery in its original form (the older, Western part) was opened in 1839, part of an initiative to provide seven large, modern cemeteries in a ring round the outside of London. The inner-city cemeteries, mostly the graveyards attached to individual churches, had long been unable to cope with the number of burials and were seen as a hazard to health and an undignified way to treat the dead.
Highgate, like the others, soon became a fashionable place for burials and was much admired and visited. The Victorian attitude to death and its presentation led to the creation of a wealth of Gothic tombs and buildings. It occupies a spectacular hillside site just a little downhill from the top of the hill of Highgate itself, next to Waterlow Park.
In 1854 the eastern part of the cemetery was opened, across Swains Lane from the original.
The cemetery's grounds are full of old growth trees, shrubbery and wildflowers that are a haven for birds and small animals like hedgehogs. The Egyptian Avenue and the Circle of Lebanon (topped by a huge Cedar of Lebanon) feature tombs, vaults and winding paths dug into hillsides. For its protection, the oldest section, which holds an impressive collection of Victorian mausoleums and gravestones, plus elaborately carved tombs, allows admission only in tour groups. The newer section, which contains most of the angel statuary, can be toured unescorted.
Although its most famous occupant is probably Karl Marx (whose tomb's most recent bombing is still recalled by middle-aged Highgate residents), there are several prominent Victorians buried here. Interments include: