Willesden Cemetery opens to day-visitors after Lottery-backed conservation

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Willesden Cemetery opens to day-visitors after Lottery-backed conservation

Visitors can see the resting place of famous Jews including scientist Rosalind Franklin, jeweller Harriet Samuel, four Chief Rabbis and Tesco’s founder Jack Cohen

Stephen is the Jewish News' Foreign Editor

The London cemetery of Jewish A-listers opens its doors to visitors from all walks of life from Monday, following a five-year £1.7 million heritage conservation project.

Willesden Jewish Cemetery is the final resting place of scientist Rosalind Franklin, designer Kurt Geiger, jeweller Harriet Samuel, the Rothschild family, four Chief Rabbis, Tesco’s founder Jack Cohen and Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon.

After years of “painstaking conservation and research,” followed by a Covid-related delay, the cemetery can now finally invite visitors to discover the lives of those buried there and to explore the customs and history of London’s Jewish community.

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

Following £1.7 million of funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, support from the United Synagogue and partnership donations, visitors to the 21-acre site can now explore its new ‘House of Life’ visitor experience.

Tour at Willesden Jewish Cemetery

The conservation and refurbishment of the Listed funerary buildings will allow the cemetery to host public events and learning programmes, said organisers, who hoped that visitors would be “inspired by stories of past lives”.

Volunteers will lead socially distanced guided walks from October, taking in the newly planted gardens, as visitors “immerse themselves in artistic soundscapes that evoke the sounds of prayer and burial rituals in the Prayer Hall and Old Mortuary”, and take part in workshops, one intriguingly titled ‘History Mystery’.

“In Jewish tradition, the cemetery is much more than a place to lay our loved ones to rest,” said Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. “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 here 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 beyond.”

Established in 1873 by Victorian Jews of German and Dutch origin, Willesden is one of London’s most interesting cemeteries, with experts saying its “design and layout reflect an immigrant community’s desire to adopt prevailing English fashions”.

Curator Hester Abrams said 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”.

Abrams added that “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… make visible hundreds of stories that would otherwise have been lost to history, which we can now share with the world”.

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