Jewish burial grounds existed in Medieval England but were lost after the expulsion of the Jews in 1290.
Jews were readmitted 350 years later by Oliver Cromwell, and cemeteries were constructed within a matter of years.
In Judaism, custom calls to avoid the use of cemeteries for activities that the dead can no longer take part in: recreation, eating, drinking or listening to music. It is also disrespectful to step on a grave or sit on a gravestone.
Despite this, there exists a fundamental belief in the impurity of the dead, and this underpins many customs relating to death and burial. For example, burial grounds were traditionally built beyond town or city walls, and the deceased must be buried as soon as possible.
In Judaism funerals are not held in synagogues, they are usually graveside or in an Ohel – a prayer hall in the cemetery. Some burial grounds also contain a Bet Taharah, where bodies are ritually washed and prepared for burial.
In 1656 the first Jews to arrive in England as part of the Resettlement were Sephardim, from Holland and Portugal, who were soon joined by Ashkenazim, from Holland and Germany. Both groups settled and worked in the East End of London and by 1700 the community had grown to approximately 600 people.
England’s earliest Jewish burial grounds are located close to where they settled: the oldest is the Grade II listed Sephardi Velho cemetery, which opened in London in 1657 one year after the resettlement. In 1696 the Ashkenazim opened their burial ground close by at the Grade II listed Alderney Road.
Burial grounds were also opened in ports along the south and east coasts as the community spread away from London. From Penzance to Canterbury to Sunderland, the grounds were originally placed away from populated centres, but the surrounding areas have since built up.
Early burial grounds tend to be small, simply laid out and functional, with plain headstones and tombs, and inscriptions predominantly in Hebrew.
Traditional Jewish funerary symbols include the ‘Cohen hands’, depicting a pair of hands raised in priestly blessing, indicating that the deceased was a member of the Cohanim. A pouring pitcher may be used on the gravestone of a Levite (hereditary assistant to the Cohanim in religious services).
Candelabra appear on women’s gravestones, depicting the woman’s role in lighting candles at home on the Sabbath, while felled tree motifs indicate that the deceased’s life was cut short.
Jewish communities in the 19th Century
The community grew and 1842 saw the advent of Reform Judaism in England, with the foundation of the West London Synagogue, where services were conducted in English. The Jews Relief Act of 1858 granted full political rights and in the same year Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jewish MP.
Between 1858 and 1881 the Jewish population in Britain grew from 36,000 to 60,000. Pogroms in the Russian Empire pushed this number higher and by 1919 the community was around 250,000. They settled in the east London and northern industrial cities like Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool.
New cemeteries were needed as existing ones filled up. At the same time, shifting Victorian attitudes to health led to a series of Burial Acts, forcing the closure of many urban graveyards. Grand and picturesque suburban cemeteries were built in the 1830s and 1840s.
The unusually elaborate Greek revival style entrance to Liverpool’s Deane Road Jewish cemetery (1836) reflects these new styles in cemetery design.
Later, extensive private cemeteries were built for cities with large Jewish populations. These were usually on the outskirts where land was more affordable, such as Manchester Urmston Cemetery, which re-used the southern remnant of a field recently bisected by the Manchester to Liverpool railway line.
The majority of England’s largest Jewish cemeteries date from this period including the United Synagogue’s extensive cemeteries at Plashet (1888), West Ham (1856) and Willesden (1873) and the joint Reform and Sephardi cemetery at Hoop Lane (1895).
They tend to be plainer than non-Jewish ones from the era, though they often have imposing entrance fronts such as the ornate wrought iron entrance gates and double prayer hall complex at Hoop Lane, Golders Green, London.
During this time wealthy and successful Jews broke with tradition and commissioned large and impressive monuments, including fashionable forms common in contemporary Christian cemeteries and finely crafted bespoke tombs.
Max Eberstadt’s tomb, which is Grade II listed, in Willesden’s United Synagogue cemetery was designed by family friend Edward Burne-Jones.
Meanwhile, the neo-classical Rothschild Mausoleum in West Ham Jewish cemetery, London, was designed by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt.
Reflecting assimilation of the established Jewish community into English society, the inscriptions contain increasing amounts of English.
The most elaborate funerary buildings date from this period and later, and are predominantly situated in London’s major Jewish cemeteries, where congregations were sufficiently large and affluent to pay for their construction.
Some were designed by notable Jewish architects who also designed synagogues, such as Nathan Solomon Joseph, who was responsible for the buildings at the Grade II listed Willesden and Plashet cemeteries.
Changing memorials in the 20th century
During the 20th century opulence fell from favour and Jewish burial grounds followed a wider trend towards plainer memorials.
For tombstone design, 19th-century styles endured well into the 20th century, alongside simple and understated memorials. Particularly interesting headstones and tombs from the 1920s and 1930s are found in Willesden’s Liberal Jewish cemetery, where many refugees from Nazism are buried.
The Baron family tomb is a striking example of early-20th century funerary art, while a tomb in the form of a cylinder carried by tortoises, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, marks the grave of the celebrated Spanish opera star Conchita Supervia.
Several notable and distinctive Anglo-Jewish funerary buildings were also built in the early 20th century.
Ecclesfield Jewish Cemetery in Sheffield has an Art Deco Ohel reflecting the architectural style of its day, in contrast to the grand triumphal arch marking the entrance to the Federation of Synagogues’ cemetery at Rainham, Essex.
The Star of David, rarely seen on early tombstones, became increasingly popular from the 1930s and 1940s onwards and has since been adopted widely as a public confirmation of Jewishness.
The distinction between Ashkenazi and Sephardi funerary monuments has also become blurred as ledger tombs have been adopted by some Ashkenazi congregations to prevent toppling.
Jewish burial grounds in the modern day
Several historic Jewish burial grounds have been lost to development, including the older part of London’s Nuevo cemetery, one of England’s earliest Jewish burial grounds. However, the Reform Movement’s first cemetery, at Balls Pond Road in Islington and the United Synagogue’s cemetery, at Brady Street in Tower Hamlets, were both saved.
Britain’s Jewish population has, for various reasons, decreased since the mid-20th century, resulting in ‘orphaned’ Jewish cemeteries that no longer have attendant congregations. The Board of Deputies of British Jews has taken a lead in securing title deeds for these and some, such as Penzance and Deane Road, are cared for by non-Jewish volunteers.
A new generation of modern Jewish cemeteries situated within, or close to, the M25 were established after the mid-20th century, making extensive burial provision for London’s Jewish community. More recently, the award–winning cemetery at Bushey has won praise for its thoughtful and minimal design.
Written by Nicky Smith, Archaeological Investigator.