Before me stands a white marble gravestone. It is small and unassuming; visitors to Willesden Cemetery could be forgiven for missing it altogether – yet it marks the resting place of a pioneering woman who changed the course of medicine.
A double helix among the usual masonry reveals the gravestone of scientist Rosalind Franklin, who helped to discover DNA.
She is just one of the many notable figures buried at the Beaconsfield Road site, which
opened in 1873 and was awarded Grade II status earlier this month.
Other notables here include Julius Vogel, the first Jewish prime minister of New Zealand; Lionel de Rothschild, one of the first Jewish members of parliament; Hannah Rosebery, once the richest woman in the world, and Jack Cohen, founder of Tesco.
The who’s who of the Jewish world buried inside Willesden’s gates mean it has become known as the Rolls-Royce of London’s United Synagogue cemeteries.
Over the course of my visit, however, I am introduced to the graves of artists, baronets, businessmen, scholars, travellers and teachers, people who founded schools and care homes, as well as many ordinary individuals who were all extraordinary in their own way.
I discover a small broken headstone dedicated to one such person – an RAF pilot officer called John Lionel de Keyser, who died at the age of just 25. I am intrigued to find out more about this unsung hero, who was reported missing in action.
A simple internet search does not reveal any further information, but help is now at hand.
A new project led by United Synagogue and funded by a National Lottery grant is hoping to transform Willesden Cemetery into a heritage hotspot and uncover more details about the people buried there.
Project development manager Hester Abrams explains: “Everybody’s stories matter and we want to uncover them all. Through telling them, we can illuminate the amazing contributions of Britain’s Jews, who made up the first significant ethnic minority to settle
here in modern times.”
Today one of the borough’s few open spaces, the cemetery has beautifully wrought Gothic pillars and headstones presenting a striking backdrop against the blue sky. It covers 21 acres, with 26,000 graves are of all shapes and sizes whose elaborate scrolls and designs catch the viewer’s eye.
“This cemetery literally charts the fortunes and development of the Jewish community in London,” Abrams continues. “Its heyday spanned the Victorian and Edwardian eras, two world wars and the post-war suburban boom from the 1940s to the 1970s.”
The heritage project hopes to interpret the graves and memorials via a website and guided tours led by trained volunteers, as well as digital tours. There are plans for open days, talks and exhibitions.
Abrams adds: “As part of the project, we want to explain and interpret Jewish burial custom and practice around death and mourning and explain some of the di erences.”
It all comes amid growing recognition of the vital part Willesden Cemetery plays in Britain’s national heritage. It boasts the first UK national Jewish war memorial and also has a unique surviving memorial to Jews who died in the Boer War of 1899 – 1902.
Abrams shows me one of the two reserved areas of Commonwealth war graves, where four simple yet striking headstones sit in a green enclosure.
Elsewhere, the grand old funerary buildings in the cemetery, which are all included in the Grade II protected status, are almost completely preserved in their original state.
They include a mortuary and prayer hall, marked with a stained-glass Star of David.
Although the site is a prominently Jewish place, Abrams emphasises the new project’s aim is for all people to connect with the heritage of the cemetery and the past it represents.
“We have had the struggles that many immigrant communities are experiencing today. We want to bring a wider range of people into the cemetery, particularly from the local community and schools,” she says.
Many of the graves we pass are well maintained, but some have inevitably crumbled over the passage of time.
Abrams mentions that the project hopes to “connect with families and encourage conservation of the graves, whether by physical repair or recording of inscriptions”.
In times gone by, Jewish burial grounds were known as the “houses of life”. Now, thanks to this project, the stories of those buried here will indeed not be forgotten.