It was what the British call a lowering day, thick, puffy gray clouds hanging heavy over the roofs and treetops, casting gloom and promising rain, pushed about slowly by the meandering September wind. "Perfect day for the graveyard," said our London hostess, and who were we to argue, if this was the English idea of a really good time. Then again, it was late Septem-ber, and the autumn air was scented with the fragrance of diminishing days, prompting thoughts of dark November and the irrevocable past. In the season of ghosts and Allhallows, perhaps some contemplation of the transiency of our mortal coil was in order, after all. So we were off to Highgate Cemetery. This was a spot I knew of only as the last resting place of Karl Marx, but our hostess dismissed him as merely the cemetery's most notorious inhabitant. The place offered many more impressive highlights and strange surprises, she promised extravagantly, for it was vast, eerie, crowded, overgrown and choked in vegetation, a vestige of Victorian London that evoked a time when people believed in spirits and life hereafter. So strong was the cemetery's unearthly spell, it was said in years long past, that witches' covens once held meetings there in the blackest hours of morning. That, however, was before the Friends of Highgate Cemetery banded together to rescue and preserve the old graveyard and give access to limited numbers of visitors. Now, for the truly mystical-minded, those with a sense of the exceedingly thin edge between this world and the other, Highgate indeed has no peer. We pulled up in front of a high gate at the entrance to what looked like merely a dense, murky tangle of forest on Swain's Lane in Highgate at about 4 p.m. In the gray atmosphere, dusk seemed already to be falling, intensified by the high trees that cast their shadows all around. We were just in time for the last tour, and joined a straggly band of about 25 sightseers, mostly young, long-haired and jeans-clad, clustered around the tour leader like students about their mentor. Our leader was Nigel, and he looked the part of a graveyard guide -- long white hair falling to his shoulders, a beard to match and piercing blue eyes that bored into your own as he talked. If not for his attire -- practical yellow rain slicker and Wellingtons -- he might have been the wizard Merlin or some half-mad Victorian eccentric. Then again, he looked a bit like Karl Marx. He warned us that our 40-minute tour of the cemetery would cover only a fraction of the acreage and interest the place encompassed. Then, stooping slightly, he strode toward a flight of stone steps leading to a hillock above the cemetery's sad-looking Gothic chapel. At the foot of the steps, he paused and pointed to an inscription in the brick wall beside them. "Read this and try not to get too depressed," he commanded. "Better than anything I say, it will tell you what this place is all about." The inscription was from Tennyson's "In Memoriam." Reading it in the gray light and the oppressive silence that bore down upon us, I felt a chill run down my spine: But where the path we walk'd began To slant the fifth autumnal slope, As we descended following Hope, There sat the Shadow fear'd of man; Who broke our fair companionship, And spread his mantle dark and cold, and wrapt thee formless in the fold, And dull'd the murmur on thy lip, And bore thee where I could not see Nor follow, tho' I walk in haste, And think that somewhere in the waste The Shadow sits and waits for me." Shaken, I joined the group on the hillock, where Nigel was recounting the background of the burial ground we had come to tramp through to satisfy our morbid curiosity, as casually as we would take a walk in the woods or a stroll in the park. It turned out, however, that we were just carrying on a longstanding tradition. Highgate Cemetery in its heyday was a favorite place for a promenade on a Sunday afternoon, Nigel informed us. Its romantic landscaping, lush greenery and magnificent, ornate monuments attracted the fashionable members of Victorian London's high society long before the Grim Reaper called them hither, and they flocked here while still in the flesh to see and be seen. The English really do know how to have a good time. Highgate Cemetery was opened by the London Cemetery Co. in 1839, in what was then a suburb of London, as one of a series of large, landscaped, privately owned cemeteries that were slowly replacing traditional church graveyards, which could no longer keep pace with London's exploding population and soaring mortality rates. Its first occupant was one Elizabeth Jackson, buried on May 26 of the same year. She was joined quickly by hundreds more, the rich and the poor, the exalted and the lowly, the famous and the anonymous, the fashionable and the not so fashionable. So popular was the new graveyard, situated on what was then the highest point of London, that an extension, now known as the Eastern Cemetery, was opened on the other side of Swain's Lane in 1854. A hydraulic bier and a tunnel were constructed under Swain's Lane to facilitate the transport of coffins from the chapels (one for Church of England, one for dissenters and Karl Marx) in the old, or Western, cemetery, to the new grounds. By 1975, Highgate Cemetery contained 166,000 bodies in 51,000 graves and was, as Nigel said, "full up." The cemetery company, meanwhile, had run into difficulties with embezzled funds, gone bankrupt, and abandoned the place. Slowly, nature took over, and the creeping mosses and strangling bushes invaded, and conquered. A drizzling rain had begun to fall as we set off to the graves up a rising path lined by brambles,vines and overhanging trees. First stop was a vine-encircled gravestone in the shape of a large chair. It was typical, Nigel told us, of the Victorian bent toward nonreligious symbols, their taste running more to Grecian urns, Egyptian obelisks and the like. Legend has it that the writer H.G. Wells, wandering about the cemetery, came upon the empty chair and found in it the inspiration for the time machine in his novel of that name. The occupant of the grave was an unknown, but in death she had served to spark the living imagination of a great mind. Her poignant monument sparked our guide's imagination too. "In such a chair the chap sat and pondered the far side," Nigel intoned, "and now it is empty, for he has gone over. He will never sit in this chair again." Draped across the back of the chair was a shroud, "the mufti," Nigel proclaimed, "he will never wear again." (A modest man, Nigel claimed to have few qualifications for discoursing on cemeteries, having spent most of his life planting tea in India, but he knew how to wring the drama out of this place of doom.) We trudged on, past gravestones looming suddenly out of the tangle of undergrowth on either side of the dirt walk, lurking in the shadows beneath the trees. We paused briefly at the grave of Charles Cruft, founder of England's most famous dog show. Then we moved toward the high point -- literally and figuratively -- of the cemetery, the site of the catacombs, the Egyptian Avenue and the Cedar of Lebanon. This area was the former grounds of a 17th-century manor house that had been converted, Nigel told us, by "two clever landscape architects" into an intricate, ornately disguised burial ground designed to take as many bodies as possible. "There are thousands and thousands in here," Nigel said enthusiastically, sweeping his arm across the hillside through which we were about to pass via a dark tunnel guarded by a rusted iron gate set between massive stone pillars of Egyptian design. Would we be going into the catacombs, one of our party asked, but Nigel shook his head no. Once, he confided, putting a finger to his lips, he had actually taken a group in, but no more. In low tones, he explained: "It's very dark in there." The gateway we now faced was the entrance to the grand Egyptian Avenue, which, with its obelisks and overhanging plantings, had once evoked the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Watch out for falling stone, Nigel warned us as we passed through, for today the avenue was in "a highly disastrous state." But it wasn't for fear of crumbling stone that we huddled together the length of the black tunnel and quickened our pace to escape the shadows and reach the light at the other end. Out on the avenue and beyond it, in the Lebanon Ring, a circular walk dug deep into the hillside and lined on either side with burial vaults, the creepy atmosphere was only slightly dissipated. Deafening the wind and the rustling leaves, the hush of the dead spread all around us. Unaffected by any of this, Nigel chattered on about the "rooms" surrounding us, where whole families were laid to rest in massive, lead-sealed Victorian coffins. The coffins in the vaults were still in good condition, Nigel said, having not been messed about with by the vandals who had wreaked havoc on the cemetery in the years of neglect and abandonment. Now he invited us to peek inside a vault through the open crosses cut into the metal door. "Robey" read the name carved in the stone above the door; there was a "Helen" and a "William" and several other names listed down the sides, all dead a century or more. I put my face to the hole. Blackness assailed me, the blackness of a void, and the warm, damp air of a place shut off for decades from air and light. The blackness was all I could see, however long I peered, and it seemed thick and alive and suddenly dreadful. ... What was that over there, off to the side? A shadow -- something -- moving -- ? I pulled back sharply, stumbled on a rock, and scurried after the rest of the group, making its way up a stone staircase to the ground above. There, Nigel pointed out the centuries-old Cedar of Lebanon, a haunting, gnarled old tree that stood in the center of the circle inside the Lebanon Ring, and after which the site was named. It predated the cemetery, having been part of the old manor house estate, and looked as though it might well outlast all the stone and iron now crumbling and rusting around it. We were at the highest point of the cemetery now. From here, in Victorian times, you could see right over London and clear to Surrey Hill, but that vista had been obliterated long ago. Nigel showed us the Julius Beer Mausoleum, an enormous domed stone structure, as big as any house most of us ever have in this life. Beer was a Victorian media tycoon, publisher of the Observer and founder of the Reuter news agency, but he died before he was 44, and his family eventually died out completely. His extravagant monument, the largest in the Western Cemetery, is ornamented within with gold mosaics and elaborate sculptures just discernible through peepholes in the door. But it looks ancient and tumbledown, a relic of grandeur that no one cares for anymore. When he had it built, Julius could never have imagined how thoroughly his memorial would succumb to the ravages of time and the indifference of man. Yet indifference could be the best of fates. As we began the descent and the circle back toward the gates, Nigel pointed out a series of vandalized graves, monuments tipped over into the high grass and broken in half. Vandals still got in sometimes, he said, although the Friends tried to patrol the cemetery at night. It was hard to imagine the kind of person who got thrills from coming into this Godforsaken place at night. A monument topped by the figure of a horse, its two front legs broken off, stood on the grave of a man once thought to have been Queen Victoria's chief horse slaughterer. An interesting aside, Nigel said: Queen Victoria is said to have been fond of burying her servants here. Her head midwife, one Mrs. Lilly, was in here too. As we crossed some invisible boundary, Nigel informed us we had entered onto the cemetery's unconsecrated ground. "You see," he said knowingly, "anyone could buy burial here, anyone at all. If you had the money, it didn't matter if you were somebody or nobody. Money talked then as now. Maybe even louder then." Most famous of those buried in this unhallowed turf was physicist Michael Faraday, whose heresy had been his membership in an odd breakaway sect from the Church of Scotland. It was only about 100 yards from here to the entrance gate. Before bidding us good-bye, Nigel discoursed briefly on other notables buried in the cemetery. Poet Christina Rossetti was here somewhere, as was Tom Sayers, the last of the great bare-fisted prizefighters; also Lord Nelson's brother and a relative of Charles Dickens. Not to mention Philip Harben, the first galloping gourmet of British television. "Oh, there's much, much more to see," he said, in this museum of the dead. In the Eastern Cemetery, which was flatter and more orderly and did not require a tour guide, were the graves of Mary Ann (Evans) Cross, a k a novelist George Eliot, and, most famous of all, Karl Marx. And so, "I hope you enjoyed it," Nigel said, and waved and stalked off, satisfied he had shown us a good time. The light was fading fast as we filed out the gate back onto Swain's Lane. We decided to take a quick look at Marx's grave, but we were too late, for the gates to the Eastern side had been locked at dusk. A Friend hovering nearby, however, told us we would be able to see Marx's monument through the trees if we walked around the fence. "Can't miss it," he said. He was right. From out of the shadows, the huge carved head of Marx that sits atop his gravestone loomed forbiddingly at us, with black sunken holes where the eyes were. Amid the stillness and the gloom, it was awesome, eerie, a huge death mask. Ah yes, death, the Great Leveler, we said philosophically, and turned back toward the car to head for the nearest pub and the carefree thoughts of life and the present and all the good times still to come. But in the back of my mind, that line from Tennyson hovered, waiting, I knew, to flicker into my consciousness from time to time, at unexpected moments, and when the days turned short and dark November approached. The Shadow, I thought, and shuddered just a little. The Shadow sits and waits for me. Highgate's Eastern Cemetery is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April through September, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. October through March, except during funerals, when it is closed to the public. The Western Cemetery can be visited only by guided tours, given hourly from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every weekend of the year and three times a day on weekdays from April through October. The cost for the tour is 2 pounds (about $3.30) per person. Highgate is in northern London; the nearest underground stop is Archway. For more information, contact the British Tourist Authority, 40 W. 57th St., New York, N.Y. 10019, (212) 581-4700, or call the cemetery, 011-441-340-1834. Zofia Smardz is a Washington writer.