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Keeping Highgate Cemetery alive

It is over 180 years since the first burial at Highgate Cemetery, and there is very little space which is not already occupied by graves. Other old cemeteries have closed to new burials and begun gradually lose the important connections to people living around them. Highgate Cemetery has a different future. 

The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust wants Highgate to continue as a working cemetery and not become simply a tourist attraction. Providing a place of burial is the best way to preserve its special character and prevent its decline. With their loved ones continuing to be buried here, future generations will value Highgate Cemetery as a spiritual landscape, different in character from other open spaces such as parks.

The Highgate Cemetery Act 2022 gives the Trust the power to take back long-unused graves to provide burial space for the needs of the present generation, and thereby assure the future of the Cemetery.

Naturally there are many safeguards to preserve the interests of grave owners and their families, and to protect the heritage. But there is much scope for Highgate Cemetery to accommodate more burials with minimal impact on the wonderful landscape.

We call the process ‘grave renewal’. Other London cemeteries already have similar powers, so the precedent was well-established. To implement it here, the Trust obtained a new Act of Parliament in 2022.

You can read the Highgate Cemetery Act here. 

There are many long-abandoned graves which could be used

For hundreds of years English churchyards accommodated the dead of their parish in a tiny amount of space. Successive generations were buried on top of each other, with the remains of their predecessors lowered in the grave or removed to a charnel house.

It was a sustainable solution until the massive growth in population from the late eighteenth century.

The Victorians responded with the idea of large urban cemeteries offering private family graves where members could be buried together. Rights of burial were granted in perpetuity.

Yet often families proved more mobile and less keen on maintaining a single burial place than anticipated, and many graves have been simply forgotten altogether by descendants.

At Highgate, some graves never had memorials, others have memorials which are now severely damaged, and still others never even received a burial. Subject to the safeguards set out in our Act of Parliament, long-abandoned graves have the potential to provide a much-needed place of burial and thereby to keep the cemetery landscape alive.

There are not so many graves available that grave renewal will bring about a sudden transformation in the appearance of the Cemetery. The process is labour intensive. A small but steady supply of renewed graves is envisaged.

Why was the Highgate Cemetery Act needed?

The Highgate Cemetery Act empowers the Trust to take back the ownership of graves which are no longer wanted and of the memorials on top of them. New burials can be made in empty graves, on top of part-used graves or in space created by lifting and reinterring earlier remains at greater depth. In this way Highgate Cemetery can be truly sustainable. 

Such powers are not unprecedented: they were already available to local authority cemeteries in London under various Acts of Parliament, and the New Southgate Cemetery Act 2017 gave similar powers to another private cemetery. But as Highgate Cemetery was established by its own private Act in 1836, other legislation allowing the re-use burial spaces did not include it.

Within the consecrated part of the Cemetery, any disturbance of remains is subject to authorisation from the Diocese of London. However the Church of England has taken a realistic approach to the problem. Indeed, the Chancellor of Southwark Diocese has stated that ‘there should be an expectation that grave spaces will in due course be reused, and this is necessary to economise on land-use at a time when grave space is a diminishing resource.’

Grave owner interests are paramount

Grave renewal will be carried out with the greatest respect for grave owners and those buried in the Cemetery. 

Only long-abandoned graves are considered for renewal. These are graves where the last burial was over 75 years ago or, if the grave is empty, which were sold more than 75 years ago.

We will write to the registered owner of every affected grave at the address recorded in our register and notices are placed at the cemetery entrance, and on or near the grave itself. We will also publish a public notice in The Times and on this webpage. 

If within six months the owner objects, the renewal does not proceed. If an objection is received from a relative of any person buried in the grave whose remains are proposed to be disturbed, no renewal will be considered for a further period of 25 years.

We also notify the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and Historic England. If they object, grave renewal can not proceed without the consent of the Secretary of State.

Our intention with these safeguards is to ensure that no grave owner would be separated from the ownership of a grave which they value.

Heritage will be safeguarded

We do not propose to remove as part of the programme of grave renewal any of the significant memorials which make Highgate Cemetery such a special place. Heritage protections are strong.

There are about eighty memorials protected by listing, and all pre-1925 memorials in Highgate Cemetery are protected by conservation area designation. And as Historic England and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission are notified of all proposals to extinguish rights of burial or disturb remains, it is unlikely that any graves of interest to them would be affected.

Priority graves for renewal are those with no memorial or where the memorial is extensively damaged. Records will be made of any removed memorial and deposited with the Registrar General.

Guidance will be developed to ensure that the design of new memorials on renewed graves would be appropriate to their context.

Graves for renewal: official notice

Here we will publish the official website notices required by the Highgate Cemetery Act.  The notices will set out the intention of the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust to extinguish rights of burial, remove memorials and disturb human remains. The notices will state:

  • full particulars of the proposals including the registered number of the grave space
  • the name, where known, of the registered owner of the right of burial or memorial
  • the name of any person whose remains are proposed to be disturbed
  • the date after which it is intended that the works shall take place
  • information about objections, compensation and arbitration and the ownership of memorials.

No graves last used less than 75 years ago are included in the grave renewal programme

Public notice: Section 4 and Section 5 of the Highgate Cemetery Act 2022
9 January 2024

Download the Public Notice and Schedule of Graves (9 January 2024)


If you'd like to object to a proposal about a particular grave, you can use our Easy Objection Tool. It will help you make sure that we get the information we need to deal with your objection.

Alternatively you can send or deliver your notice of objection to:

  • Ian Dungavell, Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust, Swain's Lane, London N6 6PJ, or
  • by email to with copy to

Your questions answered

What about the owners?

Should an owner object to the renewal of their grave, all they need do is tell us and it will not happen. We will do our best to advise them of our plans by writing to them and advertising in the press, on our website, at the Cemetery entrance and on the graves themselves. While we have ownership records for all our graves, many owners have not been in touch for over a century.

What about people who own empty graves and may have bought them only recently?

Grave renewal does not apply to any grave less than 75 years old. We can not reclaim any graves against the wish of their owners. That is categorical.

What about Commonwealth War Graves?

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission must be notified of all renewal proposals, as would Historic England. However it is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which the Trust would wish to exercise its powers in respect of Commonwealth War Graves.

What happens to the monuments?

The Act allows the Trust to remove monuments from a grave. But not all graves have monuments, and in other cases monuments are lost or broken or inscriptions have worn off. We would do our best to preserve what we can, so we would be looking to retain monuments which make a positive contribution to the Cemetery. We plan to set up a Monument Assessment and Advisory Committee to assist us with these decisions. At the City of London Cemetery, they turn headstones around and inscribe the names of new burials on the reverse. We could also try that, but it might be best to start with monuments which are beyond repair.

How do I get in touch with you about this?

You can email


7 January 2019

Not the owner? Register your interest anyway

You might be a relative of someone buried in a grave, but not the owner of it. 

You can register your email address here so that should we be considering the grave for renewal, we can let you know about it.  

Register interest in a grave