In thinking about cities and how they work I never considered death in its proper light, and what burial and its infrastructure requires in a crowded metropolis. Having just finished Necropolis: London and its Dead, that has certainly changed. Neighbourhoods founded on putrescence, typhoid, bones emerging from the ground along with noxious gases and flying beetles, all of these things were unknown to me and dwelt upon at greater length here.
I enjoyed this book, though it is more an historical presentation of quirks and facts around death and burial that does not much interrogate that history. It relates portions of A Journal of the Plague Year, for example, as essentially the straight transcribing of Henry Foe’s diaries without discussion of claims that it is one of the earliest novels, and just how much of it is fiction flowing from the pen of nephew Daniel Defoe, the actual author, who was five during the events described. There is no exploration of what drove George Walker and Edwin Chadwick to exhaustively catalog burial grounds and campaign against them, or Isabella Holmes to dedicate her life to cataloging them so that they might be converted into public parks. Views on death are presented as essentially monolithic, though changing over time. Nothing is ever monolithic.
So with that caveat, here are a collection of just some of the more interesting facts. There was something about a writer’s skull, I can no longer remember now, in fact numerous stories about skulls, bodies left to science, bodies stolen, bodies mummified on public display. I never knew that during the French Revolution people took an entire month destroying the tombs of the Bourbons and the bodies within them, then continued back through the dynasties. I appreciate that kind of revolutionary commitment to such unpleasant work, clearly all of those kings inspired an immensity of fury among their people. Fascinating on a different level was the business of death, though this is hardly a robust political economy of burials and cemeteries:
In addition to existing burial grounds, new ones were founded as speculative ventures by entrepreneurs, These were either attached to existing churches and chapels, or created on plots purchased by developers. There were fourteen of these by 1835, including Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, which had started life as a tea-rooms but was then converted to the rather more profitable purpose of human burial: New Bunhill Fields, Islington; Victoria Park Cemetery, Bethnal Green at Cambridge Fields (five acres); and Sheen’s New Ground in Whitechapel (two acres) (97).
Architects and planners were quick to take note of Loudon’s suggestion. Joint stock companies devoted to the foundation of new cemeteries sprang into being…Cemeteries had become a form of property development (125)
It is interesting to think of this in relation to the new business of cremation, how hard the possibility of it had to be fought for (aided by Shelley’s untimely death, interestingly enough), how that impacted land use in the city and suburbs. In addition to Walker, Chadwick and Holmes there is another figure to investigate further — Stephen Geary (1797-1854), who over the course of his career designed one of London’s first public houses — The Bell in Pentonville Rd, moved on to design London’s first ‘gin palace’, opened near Aldgate in 1830, and then moved on into cemetery design and formed the London Cemetery Company. He became a teetotaler and I presume slightly less fun all around in his third phase of work, but I love how this can be seen as a progression through alcoholism but also on more metaphysical levels.
To find and read, there is Charles Dickens the ‘City of the Absent’ and the ‘Soul of London’ by Ford Maddox Ford.
Unexpected was the discovery that Victorian mourning dress was actually poisoning people — the veil was ‘Originally made from crape, this oppressive garment frequently afflicted wearers with asthma, catarrh and even cataracts as a result of exposure to the black dyes.’ (208) That seems worth more study as well.
At the end there comes a description of Charlie Brown’s lavish funeral within recent East End memory, owner of the pub the Railway Tavern found at the corner of Garford St in Limehouse. It’s like she doesn’t quite know what to do with this rowdy outpouring of emotion that doesn’t fit into her schematic, like that over the funeral of the Krays (or of Princess Diana). There is story in Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets that exemplifies the spirit of what funerals meant to the poor of the East End, if not the widespread actions of those who are grieving. But I also couldn’t help remembering Maud Pember Reeves describing the pennies laid by in societies for the burials of family members, her incomprehension of it until investigation proved the decision as sound as any other. These kinds of nuances and outside sources not directly related to the business of dying and Dickens as old standby aren’t much in evidence in here and would have added a good deal I think.
I wanted to note also that I never found Bunhill Fields a gloomy place as she does — somehow that made me question every judgment in here. I find Bunhill Fields quite a wonderful place, unlike say Norwood which I do find overwhelming and creepy. That was the last cemetery I visited and I almost decided once and for all I am no longer fascinated by such places as I once was. But I do love these smaller burial grounds, and all these other cesspools of human remains now made such beautiful and welcome pockets of green filled with flowers, and so I will spend more time tracking down Isabella Holmes, who made that possible.