A buried treasure trove of history: Willesden Jewish Cemetery offers heritage experience

Chief rabbis, Rothschilds, business leaders and major figures from the arts and science worlds are laid to rest there. Now visitors can find out more


Just off one of NW10’s busier roads, the United Synagogue’s Willesden Cemetery stood as an eerie oasis during lockdown.

But with the country cautiously reopening, the cemetery is welcoming visitors to discover its close-on 150-year history — and some of the famous figures who are buried there.

A House of Life centre opened in its former lodge on Monday, the culmination of five years of conservation and research efforts and £1.7 million in National Lottery funding.

Willesden still operates as a working cemetery, with an average 25 burials a year. But the new centre offers a heritage experience for those keen to explore its rich history.

Among the 27,000 people buried at the cemetery are many community grandees and members of illustrious Jewish families — a veritable “who’s who” of UK Jewry down the years.

It is the final resting place of four chief rabbis, several members of the Rothschild banking dynasty, Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon, scientist Rosalind Franklin, designer Kurt Geiger and Tesco founder Jack Cohen.

Those ambling down the many trails can admire recently conserved memorials or find clues about the lives of those laid to rest through a series of information panels scattered across the 21-acre site. Visitors to the old mortuary can immerse themselves in the melodies of taharah in a soundscape of the burial ritual recreated by four Bushey Cemetery volunteers.

But it is also a time capsule, preserving the legacy of the capital’s Jewish community from the Victorian era until the present day.

The heritage offering has been hailed by Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis as “not only a valuable exercise in conservation but also a wonderful opportunity to share its fascinating insights and rich history with the Jewish community and well beyond”.

For those eager to learn more about the history of the Grade II-listed site — which was founded in 1873 by Jews of German and Dutch origin — guided walks led by trained volunteers are scheduled to begin next month.

Giving the JC a sneak preview, House of Life project leader and curator Hester Abrams highlights some of the older tombstones, featuring draped urns and obelisks inscribed in Hebrew and English, suggesting a desire to assimilate while protecting Jewish tradition.

She maintains that the House of Life centre should not be compared to a museum with a carefully curated assortment of artefacts.

“We don’t have a collection of objects. We have a collection of literal family connections,” she says. “Most of what you’ve got here is invisible and intangible and it’s walking in the footsteps of people.”

Tombstone tourism — visiting noteworthy burial grounds or the graves of the rich and famous — is a growing trend, she notes. And the pandemic seemed an apt time to grapple with our own mortality.

Faced with “a huge amount of death that we as a first world society didn’t expect, there’s a lot to be said for actually being able to face the prospect of dying, and how other people have dealt with it.”

To enable visitors to find out more about the lives of those buried at Willesden or reflect about death, the cemetery has refurbished its funerary buildings as a venue for talks and learning programmes.

In the meantime, a week-long programme of virtual talks began on Monday with contributors including authors Howard Jacobson, Anne Sebba and Gabriel Krauze.

An outreach learning programme for primary and secondary schools, designed with the Jewish Museum, is set to begin after half-term.

But for anyone simply hoping to snatch a moment of calm in one of the site’s newly planted garden areas, there is a “kind of transcendence”, Ms Abrams says.

The stories of those buried would prompt visitors to reflect that “these people had their lives. They died. They’re in the ground, gone to the next world, whatever it might be that your philosophy tells you.” And then to ponder: “What’s my life like? What do I want to make of my life?”

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