Highgate Cemetery mourns loss of 200-year-old cedar tree which ‘felt like the death of a relative’

Trees in cemeteries can live to ripe old ages and this tree in Highgate Cemetery predated the cemetery. It was a towering and beautiful presence within Highgate and I shall miss it.

This article is from London’s evening standard 10 August 2019

The Cedar of Lebanon has been cut down due to safety concerns ( Dr Ian Dungavell )

Locals are mourning the loss of a beloved tree which has stood at the centre of Highgate Cemetery for nearly 200 years.

The majestic Cedar of Lebanon has been in the middle of the site’s west side since its inception in the 1830s, bearing witness to hundreds of burials in that time.

Despite best efforts to keep it alive, the mighty cedar has been condemned by tree surgeons, amid fears it could collapse.

The decision was eventually made to cut it down, in what one trustee compared to the feeling of losing a “much-loved relative”.

Dr Ian Dungavell, chief executive of the Friends of Highgate Trust, told the Standard: “It was a bit like switching off the life system on a much-loved relative. This tree has seen so much.”

Staff at the cemetery had started to notice fungus on the tree, which has survived a lightning strike and deep winters throughout its life.

The tree is based above the Lebanon Catacombs (Rex Features)

Experts were called in, who said that large sections were beyond saving.

Dr Dungavell said they “did not want to believe” the report but took the decision to trust the experts.

One tree surgeon involved in cutting the Cedar down even visited the site to bid farewell to the tree before work commenced to remove it.

Meanwhile, volunteers were invited to visit and to witness it in its final days before it was felled.

“For any tree it’s upsetting if its been around for that period of time,” said Dr Dungavell, referencing the other longstanding trees at the site.

“It’s hard not to anthropomorphise them, to think, ‘what have they seen?'”

Sheldon Goodman, a tour guide and curator of the Cemetery Club website, also expressed his sadness at the situation.

“I’m a cemetery lover so the precedence this tree had is amplified in me, but knowing it’s fate, although unavoidable and necessary, doesn’t dispel that a little bit of London’s history is dying with it. You watch from the sidelines, powerless to do anything,” he told the Standard.

“Seeing the circle without the Lebanon would be like seeing Pisa without the tower, or Sydney without the bridge. The architecture becomes a nonsense without it.”

Mr Goodman said the Cedar deserved recognition as a famous tree of London, as he felt it was somewhat a “hidden secret”.

“It’s a guardian that has fallen on its sword and it’s silently watched over the fortunes of the cemetery for so many years; to see it succumb to disease and a climate it hadn’t really evolved for is such a shame,” he said.

The Cedar of Lebanon is based above the Lebanon Catacombs, which contain a number of burials in lead-lined coffins.

It is described as being like a “giant bonsai”, due to its unique placement and was part of the site when the land was part of Ashurst House, which was sold in 1830.

Dr Dungavell said a collapse would have been “horrific”, if branches had fell and smashed into them.

As well as being a constant presence in the cemetery and viewed by thousands of visitors in person, the tree has also been seen on screen.

Most recently it featured in the film Hampstead, with Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson sharing a picnic underneath its towering branches.

The west side of the cemetery is the site of hundreds of burials, including the private tomb of late music star George Michael.

Each side of the cemetery attracts thousands of visitors each year, with large numbers visiting the east side to see the final resting place of philosopher Karl Marx.

 

 

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