With a new “House of Life” web site, visitors’ center, and mini-documentary, the historic Willesden Jewish cemetery in northwest London is gearing up to reopen (when COVID-19 regulations allow) as a multifaceted visitor destination.
These the latest steps in the development of the cemetery, which was opened in 1873 and today includes nearly 30,000 graves, as a place of public heritage — an active venue that respects its sanctity as a burial site but enables visitors to explore Jewish history and heritage, as well as learn about the lives of the many Jewish personalities buried there and engage with issues related to death, funeral traditions, and funerary art.
“When Victorian Jews said ‘House of Life,’ they meant a cemetery, a resting place after death,” the web site states.
We have turned the phrase round to emphasise life, as we welcome more people from all backgrounds to remember and connect with a unique part of London’s heritage through a new cultural programme.
Our new visitor experience starts in the former Superintendent’s Lodge and continues outdoors and in the funerary buildings.
You will find new information and installations across the site.
Discover our new Visitor Centre, with its new exhibition and a friendly welcome for all.
Take a moment of quiet in the heart of the cemetery, where time stands still.
Stroll among the memorials and immerse yourself in inspiring past lives.
Find your own connection to hundreds of personalities, from the famous to the waiting-to-be-encountered.
Join a cemetery walking tour.
Share your experiences at a “Death Café”.
Write your own life story in a creative workshop.
Build your family tree.
This video introduces the cemetery and its history. Viewable on YouTube and the House of Life web site, it will be a feature of the new Visitors’ Center that will operate at the cemetery when it reopens.
The House of Life project is an initiative of the United Synagogue, which owns and operates the cemetery, which is still used for around 25 funerals a year. In 2018, Willesden received a £1.7 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to enable it to open to the public as a place of heritage.
One of the largest and most important of England’s Victorian-era Jewish burial places, it is the only Jewish cemetery on the Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England. And its funerary buildings, the UK’s first national Jewish war memorial, and three tombs were listed Grade II by Historic England in 2017.
The House of Life project is an outstanding example of how Jewish cemeteries can be integrated into tourism while respecting the sanctity of the place.
Visitors are encouraged, but, significantly, the words “tourist” and “tourism,” are never used in the descriptive or promotional material. Likewise, while the cemetery has toilet facilities and access for disabled, it does not host a cafe or food service, in accordance with orthodox Jewish practice that prohibits eating and drinking on site.
Visits are encouraged through regular guided walks conducted by volunteer guides, and through Open Days with talks, workshops and other events. During the COVID pandemic closure, the House of Life program ran a variety of online events, and plans are to continue online webinars, courses, meetings and other interactive content in the future.