Beautiful Britain: Nunhead Cemetery

When my friend visited this past weekend, her only request for sightseeing was “one of the Magnificent Seven,” and she wasn’t talking about movies. She was referring to the 19th-century cemeteries set up in what were then the suburbs of London, and have since become part of the metropolis itself. People had been overfilling cemeteries in London proper, which meant decaying corpses oozed into the water supply, spreading disease. So new cemeteries with plenty of room were built away from the city center, in less of a cramped and more of a more park-like arrangement, apparently modeled after Père Lachaise in Paris.


Nunhead Cemetery, London

We went to Nunhead Cemetery on a gloomy winter day, which is the correct time to go, of course. A few other people wandered through the gates carrying cameras, like us, but they took a different route from us and somehow we never ran into them. Every ten minutes or we encountered men walking their dogs; the dog would give us a sniff and a friendly wag of the tail, and the man would give a slight nod of acknowledgement, and they’d move on. So we mostly had the place to ourselves, which only added to the slightly spooky atmosphere.

Most of the graves were from the 19th century, and apparently left untended for at least the last several decades; gravestones tripped precariously to one side, beheaded angels stood guard over larger graves, stone inscriptions were eroding away or covered in bright green moss. The paths were well-maintained but anything just off of them was left in a perfect state of romantic decay. A Gothic sense of melancholy draped over the stones along with the creeping ivy.

At one point, we were admiring a crow as he hopped about, and then he picked up what seemed to be a chicken bone, and just when the scene couldn’t get more macabre, he fluttered into the air and alighted on a headstone. If you’re looking for a mournful Victorian graveyard to wander about in, I can highly recommend Nunhead Cemetery.


Beautiful Britain is the title I settled on for posts about the British adventures I’m having while living in London. It covers London and non-London locations alike.  

Hometown Tourist: Graceland Cemetery

Any time I ride the Red Line north of Belmont, I do two things: I whine internally about how far I am from my side of town, and I admire the long stretch of green cemetery that glides past the window in Uptown. In late June, I finally stopped riding by it and stopped in for a visit.

Graceland Cemetery was built before the Civil War, back when it was well outside city limits. Apparently it was a new thing at the time, started by Queen Victoria, to make graveyards less jumbled plots of sadness and more spacious parks for picnicking and dignified visits with the deceased. When I went, it was absolutely empty. Granted, this was during one of those weeklong stretches of 100-degree weather we’ve had this summer, so it wasn’t exactly an ideal time for a stroll.

Still, Sessily and I had a nice time walking down the meandering paths and looking at the various monuments and gravestones. I always thought predominantly Christian graveyards would have a bunch of stone crosses and marble angels, but this one is full of self-important movers and shakers of Chicago, so it’s populated with grandiose tombs and a lot of obelisks.

And now, many pictures. Enjoy!

Are these graves for people who really loved their dogs?

Or are they graves for the actual dogs?

Totally natural dance pose

There really were a lot of obelisks

This cherub is not happy about guarding this tomb for all eternity

Daniel Burnham got his own private island. Baller.

The row houses of Graceland Cemetery

Where it is: 4001 N Clark St., at Irving Park Rd. (there’s only one entrance)

When to go: 8am-4:30pm daily (office is open 9-4 M-F, 10-3 Sat, closed Sun); some tours operate on weekends during the warmer months

What to see: The office just inside the gates has a map and guidebook for sale, but you can also take a couple free pamphlets that show the basic lay of the land and point out some of the more famous monuments in the cemetery.

Cost: Free