Willesden Cemetery marks 150th anniversary with Heritage Centre opening

Many famous community members are buried at the United Synagogue cemetery


The 150th anniversary of the United Synagogue’s Willesden Cemetery was marked on Sunday by a day of events including the formal opening of its Heritage Centre by the Chief Rabbi.

Synonymous with the history of the United Synagogue — it was the US’s first major building project after its establishment by Act of Parliament in 1870 — the cemetery’s architect was Nathan Solomon Joseph, who also designed London’s New West End Synagogue and Garnethill Synagogue in Glasgow.

It is now the final resting place of almost 30,000 people, including four chief rabbis, designer Kurt Geiger, Tesco founder Jack Cohen, film director Michael Winner, painter Simeon Solomon, New Zealand premier Sir Julius Vogel and pioneering scientist Rosalind Franklin. Speakers included Franklin’s nephew Nigel Franklin, who claimed that misogyny in academia had deprived her of her rightful prominence during her lifetime.

The Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis, who unveiled a commemorative plaque, reflected: “In Jewish tradition, death is an integral part of life and our treatment of the dead is a reflection of the way we live.” Some 120 guests attended the morning’s programme, chaired by Sir Bernard Rix, an adviser to the cemetery’s House of Life project, backed by £1.7 million of National Lottery funding, which has opened the site to the public as a place of heritage.

Other speakers were Councillor Orleen Hylton, the new Mayor of Brent, which continues to support the cemetery, US chief executive Jo Grose and its head of heritage Miriam Marson, who organised the event. Local MPs Dawn Butler and Barry Gardiner also attended.

In the afternoon, volunteer educators led four sold-out walking tours of the 150-acre site, at which burials are still conducted.

Marson said the US was “delighted by the overwhelming response to our new walking tour and the genuine enthusiasm shown by visitors.

“The success of this guided walk reinforces our commitment to preserving and celebrating our heritage while fostering a deeper connection between our community and the legacy of the US and the cemetery.”

A waiting list for the tours “clearly demonstrates the community’s passion for history and their eagerness to engage in educational experiences that celebrate the past”.

The US is responsible for maintaining more than a dozen cemeteries across England, including a number of historic sites in east London.

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