Cemetery site gets a makeover

By Jessica Elgot, April 6, 2012

A major facelift for an 18th century Jewish cemetery at the heart of a modern London university campus has been a labour of love.

The Spanish and Portuguese Novo cemetery was sold to Queen Mary University in Mile End 30 years ago on a 999-year lease and college buildings were constructed on three-quarters of the land.

This entailed exhuming the bodies and reburying them in Edgware. Boxer Daniel Mendoza was buried in the original cemetery, as were many members of the Sassoon family.

The remaining part of the cemetery was surrounded by the campus and hidden by a large hedge. But the university and the cemetery undertook a major redesign, the college's intention being to widen a path across the cemetery for students and to create a small space for "contemplation".

Rabbi Eiran Davies said he had tried to ensure that Jewish law was not violated during the work.

"The cemetery was neglected," he explained. "It was used by drug addicts and prostitutes before the university bought it. Mistakes were made after the sale, but we are trying to rectify what we can."

A smooth white wall lined with silver birch trees now encircles the site and there are information signs for passers-by. "We have made sure absolutely no soil was displaced from the site during the works - it has all been reinterred," Rabbi Davies stressed.

"I went through all the soil that was moved by hand to make sure no bones were lost.

"We have had such a reaction from the students. A significant proportion are first generation immigrants. They need to learn about this historical narrative of immigration and integration." When Princess Anne visited the campus recently to open the neighbouring Arts Two building, she was introduced to Rabbi Davies and Sephardi leader Rabbi Abraham Levy, who spoke to her about the renovated cemetery.

Last updated: 8:56am, April 10 2012