As in Life, So in Death

As I mentioned in a reply to a comment from Pat the other day, I had a nice wander around West Norwood Cemetery at the weekend. It’s a big place, forty acres, and has a nice rise to the chapel and crematorium at the top, with splendid views across London. There was hardly anyone about, not even many dog walkers, which surprised me given what a great space it is close to streets of houses.

Even in death, maybe especially in death, it’s easy to pick out the rich, the powerful, the self-important and the famous. I couldn’t always find a name on the various tombs and mausoleums, but it was pretty obvious which ones had been particularly costly. Some are the size of beach huts, some largish summer houses. It was an uncomfortable thought that some of our dead are housed better than the living; homelessness is rife in London. It’s a national scandal. Today a homeless man was found dead yards away from the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the UK government.

Grand resting place

Striking a pose in death



At least one pigeon had found itself a upmarket abode.

Pigeon loft

Other memorials were massed together; the rank and file of dead; the crosses, angels and wreaths of ivy like so many extras in a crowd scene.

Crowd scene

Inevitably my eye was mainly drawn to the more flamboyant, but I did wonder if this woman might figure in my family tree as one of my paternal great grandmothers maiden name was Farley, and this would be the right sort of neighbourhood of London.

Possible ancestor

Added to that, one of my grandmother’s middle names was Agnes. It made me thoughtful.

I liked this memorial and I know an Ibbotson, though I don’t think his family hails originally from south London.


And I’d love to know the story of the couple named on this memorial.

Florence and Suleiman

I wrongly assumed that Mr John Wimble had died at sea, but a quick search online revealed he had retired from his nautical life, lived in comfort near the Old Kent Road and left considerable sums of money behind. Not bad for a lad who started his career at twelve or 13.

A number of the tombs and mausoleums are sadly dilapidated, including this very grand one to the Grissell clan, whose contributions through their civil engineering work include ironwork at the Palace of Westminster, gates for Sir William Tite’s Royal Exchange, the gates and railings round Buckingham Palace and at the British Museum, as well as bridges at locations in both the UK and Egypt. It’s an impressive CV.

Grissell mausoleum

You might notice a splendid mausoleum in the background, to the left of the Grissell monument. It’s gorgeous, but try as I might I couldn’t find a name.

Impressive mausoleum

Impressive but still nameless

Fortunately, this striking mausoleum has been documented elsewhere, so it wasn’t too difficult to find that it was erected to house the remains of one Alexander Berens, a linen draper of St. Paul’s Churchyard who made a fortune. His tomb was designed by EM Barry, whose father Charles was one half of the partnership responsible for rebuilding the Place of Westminster after the devastating fire of 1834. The son’s design seems to owe more to Barry père’s co-worker, Augustus Pugin.

Walking back down the hill though the long shadows of a February morning I came across a much simpler memorial, but arguably every bit as arresting and moving.

Simply the best

11 thoughts on “As in Life, So in Death

  1. I guess if you can’t take your money with you, plant it in cement, so no one else can have it. Whoever is in there, probably has gold and treasures planted with them, never to part. Interesting places. I love looking at i terrsting things, thank you for sharing

    • These big Victorian cemeteries built to cope with the too full churchyards have many overblown monuments from the C19. Some are amazing. Well worth exploring.

  2. Isobel you continue to fill up our London itinerary. We’ve done Highgate and Abbey Woods (this last time). Have no idea if we are doing them in any order, but this one looks most intriguing. Nothing like a well filled cemetery, in good repair or bad, to offer that opportunity to connect with humanity in the broadest sense of the word.

    • There must be a map available, there is a friends group so it would be worth contacting them in advance. I think they do tours, as the friends of Nunhead cemetery do as well.

  3. and so do I. I think it’s lovely. But the assumption that those huge mausoleums are only about conspicuous wealth is, I think, slightly misguided. I’m sure it’s one aspect, but the other is about doing something really bloody impressive and good because we loved her/him so much (q.v. Albert Memorial). Not always, I’m sure, but often enough.

  4. Isobel, I’ve lost your phone number. Could you phone me or email me. I’d really welcome a chat. (And this is not inappropriate to your post, because it relates to the death of a friend.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.