I never thought I would be a tourist attraction! Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and now Willesden United Synagogue Cemetery. The cemetery has become a heritage site, thanks to an award by the Lottery Fund and the local council. It’s certainly worth a visit. The cemetery opened in 1873 and my family have been buried there for at least 100 years. I’ve been going to Willesden twice a year, as is the din, since I was barmitzvah. At some point I’ll be going there permanently.
As you would expect we have laws about cemeteries. The first is that they have to be in the country; a rural setting is less likely to get infected, and Willesden was country in 1873. Nathan Marcus Adler was the Chief Rabbi and the first funeral took place without all the necessary permissions having being obtained from the building authorities. The United Synagogue Cemetery committee argued vehemently about this at their next meeting, and the Chief Rabbi had to point out that he was in charge of cemeteries and not lay committees.
If you are rich you may decide to have your own mausoleum and Lord Rosebery, who had been prime minister, had a fine one in Scotland. He was married to Hannah Rothschild, (1851-1890) who died young, and he wanted her buried in the family tomb. Hannah had left instructions, however, that she was to be buried at Willesden and she is there with the rest of the family.
The most prestigious location for your grave in the cemetery is, of course, near the prayer hall. It’s no use being a multi-millionaire though to get a place in the stalls. The din lays down that the nearest graves to the hall have to be reserved for the wisest in the community, not the richest.
At Willesden you’ll, therefore, find the Chief Rabbis immediately adjoining the hall, but the nearest grave is that of Rabbi Simeon Singer who is credited with the Singer prayer book, though it should be the Adler prayer book as the Chief supervised the content of every prayer. It says “Reverend” on the tombstone too, but Singer had semicha. It shows the importance we give to learning.
You would expect the gravestones to list the awards of the deceased but it’s a bit surprising to see one grave which proudly announces that the interred was a church warden at a highly regarded location in the City.
There is some disagreement about whether the tombstone should be tall or flat. The Sephardim only choose flat. The most imposing tall tombstone in Willesden is that of Sir Jack Cohen, (1898-1979), the founder of Tesco. It is a majestic blue marble and certainly properly reflects the success of the East End boy.
There are, of course, tragedies and they can hurt rich and poor. The founder of Shell Oil, Marcus Samuel, Lord Bearsted, (1853-1927), has a splendid tomb, but next to it is the grave of his son Gerald George, killed at the Battle of Ypres in 1917. I’m sure Bearsted would have cheerfully swapped the oil company for his son’s life.
Willesden has a number of war memorials. There is one for the Boer War where over 100 Jews were killed. There are memorials for both World Wars where the casualties were far larger, and a section where many Second World War casualties are buried.
Seniority in life can be reproduced in death. The minister at Dunstan Road for many years was Rev. Isaac Livingstone, (1885-1979), an august figure widely known as the Vicar of Golders Green. The Hazan was Rev. Tashlicky, who was much shorter and always in the background. In Willesden the grave of Rev. Livingstone is still in front of that of Rev. Tashlicky.
Every community has its black sheep and Willesden has its graves, large and small, which house stories which are best forgotten. As the years go by memories fade. On the day of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the highly contentious, 46 year old diamond entrepreneur, Barney Barnato, jumped off the liner on which he was returning to England and was killed.
There is a problem with suicides. To kill yourself is against the din and the only excuse is if the state of mind of the victim was disturbed at the time of his death. It has, therefore, become the decision in almost all the cases of suicide that, indeed, the mind was disturbed. Barney Barnato is buried at Willesden. There are problems at the moment about a bust of Cecil Rhodes, his antagonist in South Africa, in Oxford, but Barnato doesn’t have one anywhere.
Willesden isn’t a closed cemetery; there are still about 25 burials a year; I’m going to try to make it 24 for as long as possible.