Willesden Jewish Cemetery - London's tourist secret

Free guided tours and a brand new 'House of Life' centre introduce visitors to the lives of the people who rest in the grounds


A cemetery is not the first place you might think of for a family day out, but the team at Willesden Jewish Cemetery is hoping to change your mind.

The cemetery opened in 1873 but has been given a new lease of life thanks to a £2.3 million regeneration project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and United Synagogue.

Only around 20 burials a year take place now due to limited space. The aim of the regeneration is to preserve the heritage of the site, and also to engage new visitors with its history and the people interred there since Victorian times.

“The idea is to bring more and more people in to see the wonderful place and hear the wonderful stories that can be told here,” interim manager Corinne Van Colle said.

It is located in what was once the countryside to the north-west of London, in a town that had a thriving Jewish community. The cemetery was created for Victorian Jews of German and Dutch origin who had settled in the area, and it was the first project of the United Synagogue, which had been created by the union of five Jewish congregations in the City of London.

Willesden Cemetery is now offering both guided and self-guided tours of its extensive grounds with its unique tombs and intricate mausoleums, and has opened a brand new “House of Life” in its former administration building to showcase the history of the cemetery and the lives of the people who now rest in its grounds.

Pioneer scientist Rosalind Franklin is one of the many notable people interred at Willesden, with visitors learning of her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, for which she was only credited after her death from ovarian cancer in 1958 at the age of just 37.

Also buried in the grounds are four former Chief Rabbis — the most of any cemetery — including Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler (1803-1890) who established the United Synagogue, and his son Hermann Adler (1839-1911), who played a crucial role in integrating Russian Jewish migrants into life in England.

The grave of Sir John Edward “Jack” Cohen, founder of retail giant Tesco, is also a key stop on the guided tour.

However, the tours are not just about the famous people; some guides have family members buried in the grounds, which makes it a uniquely personal experience, and others draw on their own research to tell the stories of ordinary Jews in a time of upheaval, pogroms, and world wars. The tranquil grounds of the cemetery have been restored to their full glory, with a team of five volunteers tending to the trees, paths and flowers.

The benches throughout make it a peaceful oasis in a quiet, residential corner of London.

The House of Life centre has interactive tablets to learn about the lives of the people resting in the grounds, and the grade-II listed funerary buildings have also been refurbished to allow visitors to learn about Jewish burial traditions.

A remarkable soundscape installation allows visitors of all faiths to experience the sounds and atmosphere of Jewish prayer.

Volunteer coordinator Rachel Muckle said: “It is very much about the local community and reaching out to other faiths and bringing them in to talk about the rituals and customs of a Jewish burial, and to make people really proud of the fact that this is here on their doorsteps.”

Willesden Jewish Cemetery offers its free tours throughout the week, and is also planning themed tours throughout the summer. For opening hours, as well as tour and special event details, click here.

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