Houses of Eternal Life
Known by the Hebrew names bet hayim, ‘house of life’, and bet olam, ‘house of eternity’, Jewish burial grounds are where the bodily remains of the dead dwell. According to traditional Orthodoxy, they await the arrival of the Messiah when they will awaken to be reunited with their departed souls and be resurrected for eternity.
Research by Historic England’s Historic Places Investigation Team is underway to improve our understanding of England’s post-Resettlement Jewish burial grounds. In collaboration with colleagues in the Listing Group, we are working to enhance their protection through new entries on the National Heritage List for England (NHLE) and, as we learn more about the issues they face, we are developing policies and building partnerships to ensure that the historic significance of these unique places is not lost.
In 1656 Oliver Cromwell allowed Jews to be re-admitted to England after an absence of almost 400 years following their expulsion by Edward I. The ‘Sephardim’ of Spanish or Portuguese descent were the first to arrive, later joined by ‘Ashkenazim’ from Eastern Europe and Germany. Most lived in London’s East End, where the earliest cemeteries are found within a small area around the Mile End Road. The Velho Sephardi cemetery, established in 1657, is the oldest to survive. Smaller communities developed later in provincial ports and market towns, each of which had their own burial ground. The oldest fully documented example outside London, in Fawcett Road, Portsmouth, was acquired in 1749.
Urban churchyards and burial grounds became a source of disease and were closed under the provisions of the Burial Acts of 1852 and 1853. These Acts led to the establishment of municipal cemeteries which form the basis of modern burial provision. Many have a discrete Jewish section, usually at the cemetery’s edge and accessed through its own entrance. Southampton Common Cemetery has one of the earliest Jewish sections, dating from 1854.
These municipal cemeteries would be the final resting places of many of the 100,000 Jews who fled to Britain from pogroms in Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914. They were joined by a further 50,000 who managed to evade Nazi death camps prior to 1939.
Passers-by on busy urban streets are usually unaware that a Jewish burial ground lies hidden away behind high walls and locked gates. Those who venture inside will find a quiet and secluded oasis harbouring a deep sense of the past. There are no crosses or weeping angels and it is not normally the custom to lay flowers. Instead, small stones are placed by visitors to the graves, following the Biblical custom of covering burials with cairns.
Although Jewish cemeteries share some characteristics with Christian burial places, there are differences. In contrast to churches surrounded by their graveyards, Jewish burial grounds are hardly ever located next to a synagogue. They are usually enclosed by high walls and access is restricted. If possible, running water is supplied for the ritual washing of corpses and facilities are provided near the exit for visitors to ritually cleanse their hands on leaving the cemetery.
Bodies may be buried with the head facing Jerusalem (east or south-east in Britain) and care is taken to delimit the outline of a grave by kerb sets, railings or temporary plastic markers. This prevents people disrespecting the deceased by stepping over them and alerts the Cohanim to their presence.
The Cohanim are male Jews directly descended from Aeron by the paternal line. Present-day Cohanim might have indicative surnames such as Cohen, Kahn, or Katz, but synagogues rely on individuals to identify themselves. They have special priestly status in Orthodox Judaism and, to avoid defilement, they are strictly forbidden to come into contact with corpses other than those of close family members. For this reason the graves of Cohens are often found at the edges of cemeteries to allow their Cohanim relatives to visit while keeping a safe distance from the other graves.
The spectrum of religious observance in Judaism is wide. Reform and Liberal congregations have their own burial grounds where they allow human ashes to be buried, sometimes in purpose-built columbaria, whereas cremation is strictly forbidden in Orthodox cemeteries. Burial practices also reflect different ethnic origins. In larger cemeteries, Sephardim, who have flat tombs, are buried separately from the Ashkenazim with their upright headstones.
There may be an ohel (Hebrew for ‘tent’), a small prayer hall in which the funeral service is conducted immediately prior to interment. This is sometimes combined with a bet taharah (‘house of purification’) where the body of the deceased is washed. Larger Jewish cemeteries, such as Willesden and Golders Green in London have impressive purpose-built complexes, and in some provincial cemeteries distinctive hexagonal ohalim were built during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Monuments to the dead
Everyone was considered to be equal in death, so early Jewish matzevot (gravestones) were simple and uniform in size and style.
However, it was not long before distinction crept in. In Victorian Jewish cemeteries chests, urns, obelisks and grander monuments began to appear in keeping with the fashions of the time. London’s Brady Street cemetery established a special ‘privileged members’ section for people who financed it, while large monuments in prime spots were occupied by wealthy and powerful families such as the Rothschilds in London’s Willesden and West Ham Jewish cemeteries.
Inscriptions are in Hebrew and English, with the balance shifting towards English over time. Hebrew and Gregorian calendar dates of death and birth (or age at death) are given, with names of the deceased and those of close family members.
There may be a quotation from the Psalms and comments on an individual’s character, activities, place of origin, place of residence (sometimes the full address), place and cause of death.
Jewish symbols are of particular interest. The Star of David is common and is a relatively recent introduction, appearing from the 19th century onwards as a public confirmation of Jewishness. Older symbols include spread hands performing a priestly blessing denoting the grave of a male Cohen.
Another symbol found is a hand pouring water from a jug. This denotes the grave of a male Levi, a descendent of families who served the Cohanim of the Jerusalem Temple. Levis still ritually wash the hands of the Cohanim before the latter recite priestly blessings during some synagogue services.
Other symbols include the menorah (seven-branched candelabra), broken trees, birds, books and opening doors.
Decline and decay
Today, the Jewish population in England is declining and those who remain have usually moved from the inner-city areas of early settlement to more affluent suburbs. Their ‘orphaned’ burial grounds often lie untended, sometimes derelict. Even where the Jewish community thrives, the challenge to maintain ageing cemeteries with large numbers of dangerously unstable, broken and weathered tombstones is enormous. Vegetation growth, theft and vandalism exacerbate the problem, while urban foxes make burrows under funerary monuments.
Religious prohibition on the disturbance of Jewish burials has not protected them from damage and destruction. Most controversially, three quarters of London’s Nuevo Cemetery, including the earliest part dating from 1733, was destroyed for the expansion of Queen Mary University’s campus in the 1970s. The surviving part is now listed Grade II on Historic England’s Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.
Burial grounds are the principal body of evidence for the cultural heritage of the early Jewish community and are sometimes the only reminder of a community which no longer exists. Their gravestones tell us about individuals from all walks of life, giving us an insight into people’s beliefs and into contemporary fashions, providing a unique historical and social perspective of Jewish life in England from the 17th century onwards.
Nicky Smith MCIFA.
Archaeological Investigator with Historic England
Nicky is a landscape archaeologist who began her career with the Ordnance Survey. She joined English Heritage from the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England in 1999. She undertakes a range of applied research and analytical survey tasks. Her publications include An Archaeology of Town Commons in England (2009).
Kadish, S 2011 ‘Jewish Funerary Architecture in Britain and Ireland since 1656’. Jewish Historical Studies 43, 59-88
Kadish, S 2015 Jewish Heritage in Britain & Ireland. Historic England in conjunction with Jewish Heritage UK
Marks, K 2014 The Archaeology of Anglo-Jewry in England and Wales 1656-c1880. Oxford: Archaeopress and K Marks