Death is one of those awkward subjects, but when you’re building a city it’s something you have to face up to. More specifically, you have to face up to the question of what you’re going to do with all the bodies.
In the first half of the 19th century, this problem became rather pressing, and if there’s one thing 19th century folk were obsessed with, it was death. And piety. And flagellation, if you’re reading the right books. In the case of London, a certain practical obsession was formed out of necessity. The traditional way of doing things was to lay the ex-person who has ceased to be to rest in the churchyard or, if that was full, in the graveyard attached to the church.
But the city had been expanding at an unprecedented rate in the 19th century (from 1 million to 2.3 million by 1850), and the churchyards were stuffed (if you’ll pardon the inelegant turn of phrase). Even the odd privately-owned burial ground – a few had been opened to cope with the demand – was insufficient. Horror stories abounded of gravediggers jumping up and down on old corpses to fit new ones into the holes, or cutting through accidentally-exhumed limbs while digging new plots, or accidentally digging so deep that corpses fell into sewers and were carried away. All of a sudden, that Victorian terror over premature burial is starting to look a whole lot more sensible, ain’t it just?
Edwin Chadwick, the social reformer, noted that “on spaces of ground that do not exceed 203 acres, closely surrounded by the abodes of the living, 20,000 adults and nearly 30,000 youths are every year imperfectly interred,” which is even worse than Stockwell Tube Station at rush hour. Charles Dickens, in his essay ‘Churches,’ said that “rot and mildew and dead citizens formed the uppermost scent,” when walking around the City.
The issues were twofold. Firstly, there was the obvious spiritual aspect – the dead were supposed to rest in peace, not rest until some bastard with a shovel desecrated their corpse. But then there was the hygiene thing. Although the transmission of disease was not properly understood, people did have some vague notion that being around dead people all the time was probably not good for you. The most popular theory was that disease was transmitted through “miasma,” or foul air. And that was in plentiful supply. As we now know, of course, miasma was a lot of rot (har har), but the truth was that human remains were undoubtedly contributing to outbreaks of disease – for instance, one of the overcrowded private burial grounds was at the New River in Islington, a major source of drinking water for the city.
The solution was new, bigger cemeteries on what were then the outskirts of London. Initially, the idea of cemeteries not attached to churches filled the pious folk of the city with dread, but a cholera epidemic in 1832 forced them to say “Yes yes alright.” The first of these to open was Kensal Green in 1832, seen above. The Gentleman’s Quarterly set people’s minds at rest by explaining the cemetery’s layout thus: ”The left hand road, as will be anticipated, leads to the abodes of the Turks, Jews, Infidels, Heretics and ‘unbaptised folk,’ and the right hand after passing among the beautiful and consecrated graves of the faithful, leads to the Episcopal chapel.” Catholics were not included among the infidels, heretics and the like, as a separate cemetery dedicated to St Mary had been opened next door.
Next came West Norwood in 1837, now famous for its magnificent collection of listed monumental masonry. This was followed by Goth favourite, vampire-haunted Highgate in 1839 (seen right). Abney Park, Brompton and Nunhead came in 1840. The last of the batch was Tower Hamlets in 1841. Collectively, these burial grounds have been nicknamed “the Magnificent Seven.” Yet soon, even these would be eclipsed by the Brookwood Necropolis in Surrey, but that’s another story.
Ironically, given the initial opposition to their construction, some of these graveyards have become rather trendy addresses. You know, as far as places to be deceased in go. Highgate, for instance, charges you admission to look at the graves. I went in once. To be honest, it was pretty dead.
Do not, as I did when composing this entry, search Google Images using the words “Victorian death.” It turns out that post-mortem photography was quite popular in those days, and that, combined with the high infant mortality rate, has ensured that I will not sleep tonight.