Willesden Jewish Cemetery enters London’s culture scene with a new visitor experience

This blog is written by Hester Abrams, “House of Life” Project Leader and Curator at Willesden Jewish Cemetery.

After five years of painstaking conservation and research, and a Covid-related delay, Willesden Jewish Cemetery extended a warm welcome to people of all backgrounds in September 2020. It is the first time that a still active Jewish cemetery will invite visitors to discover the lives of people buried there, and to explore the customs and history of London’s Jewish community.

The cemetery is the final resting place of a dazzling array of British Jews dating back to the Victorian era. They include scientist Rosalind Franklin, designer Kurt Geiger, jeweller Harriet Samuel, members of the Rothschild banking family, four Chief Rabbis, Tesco’s founder Jack Cohen, Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon – as well as thousands of people whose stories are yet to be discovered.

The orthodox Jewish cemetery in Brent, northwest London, owned and looked after by the United Synagogue, is the only Jewish cemetery on England’s Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest.

Thanks to £1.7 million funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, support from the United Synagogue and partnership donations, visitors to Willesden Jewish Cemetery will be able to explore its new ‘House of Life’ visitor experience with opportunities to:

  • Take a socially distanced walk through a 21-acre memorial landscape following new trails that open up the stories of the site.
  • Learn about London’s Jewish community over the last 150 years and its living traditions from new exhibits at the new “House of Life” visitor centre in the former Lodge.
  • Step inside listed funerary buildings which have been conserved and refurbished to host public events and learning programmes.
  • Be inspired by stories of past lives on regular guided walks led by trained volunteers (expected October onwards to allow adaptations for social distancing).
  • Appreciate the peace and quiet of newly planted garden areas designed to boost biodiversity in a built-up area of London.
  • Immerse themselves in artistic soundscapes that evoke the sounds of prayer and burial rituals in the Prayer Hall and Old Mortuary.
  • Take time to remember lost friends and family and reflect on the subject of death through a varied events programme run with partners including Death Café, Brent 2020 London Borough of Culture and others.
  • Book for “History Mystery” workshops and support GCSE learning about Jewish mourning practices with a learning and schools outreach programme for primary and secondary schools designed with the Jewish Museum.
  • Join a friendly team of more than 60 volunteers from all walks of life and get involved in gardening, historical research, marketing, visitor welcome and a host of other activities.

The new heritage offer and its events are all free to attend. The House of Life visitor experience and opening hours are run in accordance with the Jewish calendar and religious practice. Only a few burials are now held each year on the site.

History and future

Established in 1873 by Victorian Jews of German and Dutch origin, Willesden is contemporary with London’s “Magnificent Seven” cemeteries which include Highgate and Brompton cemeteries. Its design and layout reflect an immigrant community’s desire to adopt prevailing English fashions. Historic parks and gardens expert David Lambert, author of a Conservation Plan for the cemetery, described Willesden Jewish Cemetery as “Sleeping Beauty”. It is ripe for discovery.

Hester Abrams, “House of Life” Project Leader and Curator at Willesden Jewish Cemetery, said:

“Whether you live locally or come from further away, the new ‘House of Life’ heritage experience puts Willesden Jewish Cemetery on the map as a new place to come to explore, learn and reflect on the lives of a minority community and your own life experiences. Everyone will find a story that they can relate to. That’s why we have chosen to call the cemetery ‘London’s Place to Remember’.

“By careful conservation of buildings, memorials and the landscape, we’ve retained the site’s poignant atmosphere and slowed the effects of time. Our new displays are a result of a massive research effort by staff, volunteers, families and the public. They make visible hundreds of stories that would otherwise have been lost to history, which we can now share with the world.”

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said:

“In Jewish tradition, the cemetery is much more than a place to lay our loved ones to rest. It is a sacred memorial to the times and achievements of our ancestors, so that we can pray for their souls and learn from their example. That is why the new heritage experience offered at Willesden Cemetery is not only a valuable exercise in conservation, but also a wonderful opportunity to share its fascinating insights and rich history with the Jewish community and well beyond. Thanks to the United Synagogue and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, this project sets a new standard for the way in which we treasure and learn from our past.”    

Virtual events programme

While the cemetery itself is an ideal place for a socially distanced walk, the heritage team is now running events online to engage people who are not able to visit in person.

A celebration of life stories, life lines, will run from 7th September throughout the launch week on zoom. It will bring together established and prize-winning authors from diverse backgrounds including Howard Jacobson, Guy Gunaratne, Anne Sebba, Sally Bayley and Gabriel Krauze to explore different forms of writing. Taking part will be biographers of people buried at Willesden Jewish Cemetery and experts in obituary and eulogy and other events will explore memoir, auto-fiction and how to create a sense of place.

Ahead of the launch, the House of Life team presented events including a regular Death Café, a non-judgmental space to explore the topic of death, aimed in particular at the local community in Brent which has been hard hit by coronavirus. An event in July with Cambridge University science historian Patricia Fara and James Naismith, director of Oxford University’s Rosalind Franklin Institute rewrote the legacy of one of the cemetery’s most famous “residents”, the scientist Rosalind Franklin on the centenary of her birth.

Stuart McLeod, Director London & South at The National Lottery Heritage Fund, said: “Thanks to money raised by National Lottery players we’ve been pleased to support the transformation of Willesden Jewish Cemetery and delighted to see it open for the public to enjoy – particularly at a time when the importance of access to heritage and open spaces has become ever more evident. The site will also be a fantastic addition to the Brent Borough of Culture programme which we are also proud to support thanks to National Lottery players.”

Willesden Jewish Cemetery is participating in Brent 2020 London Borough of Culture and has commissioned local sound artists Susanna Grant and Jo Morris to produce a piece of work as part of the first BRENT BIENNIAL.