By Fleming, Fergus
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 129, No. 4507
With our cemeteries almost full, staying buried is getting harder. Fergus Fleming digs up some morbidly fascinating truths about funerary customs, and asks
Where do we go when we die? Heaven and hell aside, the traditional answer is underground. But as populations expand, burial has become less and less practicable, particularly in cities. Six hundred and fifty thousand Britons (mostly urban) die every year. Space is running out.
It's not a new problem. The dead have been giving us gyp ever since we started living in cities -- and nowhere has suffered as badly as London. In the Middle Ages, Londoners worked to the formula of one corpse, one more slot in the graveyard. Fine in principle, except that there weren't enough graveyards and not nearly enough slots. By Stuart times, the capital was a mess. Bodies were hardly buried at all, simply chucked on top of each other with a scattering of earth. Ground levels in churchyards rose so dramatically that coffins spilled over the walls and chapels sat in pits, protected by dykes of stone. The Great Fire of 1666 destroyed the lot, giving London a chance to rebuild--which it did, only to find that, within a hundred years, the situation was as bad as ever. Plague, cholera and other epidemics filled graveyards to the brim. They were so mephitic that passers-by fainted and sextons had to be plied with rum before doing their job. Many of those who dwelled nearby died from what records called "put rid fever".
If finding a place to be buried was difficult, staying buried was even more so. Thanks to body-snatchers, a fresh grave was all too likely to be opened and its occupant transferred to the anatomist' s slab. Vaults were built like Fort Knox, and coffins were made to last -- you could even buy a booby-trapped version that exploded if opened. Mortsafes, iron cages fixed over the grave, became commonplace. But if bodies weren't bolted down or locked up (and most weren't), they were thrown out to make way for newcomers, or dug up to fuel a thriving black market. Coffins were sold for firewood, second-hand coffin furniture was peddled openly, and skeletons were shipped north to be ground down for fertiliser. It was, as one magazine complained, "a great public inconvenience", not to mention a great public health hazard.
One vicar, who ran an operation in Clement's Lane off the Strand, offered a unique solution. Enon Chapel was opened to worshippers in 1823. A thin layer of boards separated its congregation from a crypt measuring 60ft long, 29ft wide and 6ft deep. Over the course of 20 years, it was packed with 12,000 bodies, which the vicar doused with quicklime before flogging their coffins. Commercially, Enon Chapel was a success but, as a board of inquiry pointed out, it lacked delicacy.
By the mid- 19th century, government was forced to address matters. Answers flooded in, some sensible, some visionary, some attractively daft. One Egyptophile architect proposed catacombs shaped like pyramids, each outer "stone" containing a coffin. The final result was more prosaic. Between 1837 and 1841, with parliamentary approval, seven privately operated "Gardens of the Dead" were laid out in London's outer suburbs. At Highgate, Brompton, Nunhead, Kensal Green, Tower Hamlets, Abney Park and West Norwood, fields were walled off, provided with catacombs and chapels, planted with trees and advertised as the safest, most exclusive resting places available. There was a price, but everybody, from royalty down, seemed willing to pay.
Cemeteries were one of the great successes of the age. They were not only large safe-deposit boxes for the dead, but also places of instruction for the living. Within their walls, Victorians could wander and ponder the hereafter. An epitaph in the Brompton "garden" captured the mood:
Readers all as you pass by,
As you are now so once was I,
As I am now so you will be.
Prepare for death and follow me! …