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Necropolis: London and Its Dead Paperback – June 4, 2007
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London is one of England’s oldest cities, and Arnold begins with the burial practices of the Celtics and Romans. Both civilizations practiced cremations. But once Christianity spread, cremations were largely discontinued and the nightmare of death began. Add a couple of plagues and more than a few wars, and there weren’t enough places to bury the dead. Arnold investigates the many instances where the burial of the dead has lead to major problems including safety issues, building stability problems, and health hazards. Spa Fields was a cemetery with space for 1,000 bodies. But it was estimated “that, by burning coffins, mutilating remains, and using vast quantities of quicklime, at least 80,000 corpses had been buried there.”
Arnold does touch on much interesting history about death. For instance, in Roman times, “Burial clubs enabled individuals to save for their last rites; even slaves could join.” The overcrowding of London and the lack of spaces for burial lead to the creation of garden cemeteries on the outskirts of town. She discusses the College of Heralds and the heraldic funeral. The author talks about how funeral customs have changed. When Queen Victoria loses her beloved Prince Albert, she engages in “’hysterical mourning’” and established “the Victorian celebration of death.’” This pretty much lasted the rest of her long life. Yet, “By the 1930s, elaborate funerals had fallen out of favour among the upper and middle classes. The Earl Marshall’s orders on the death of King George V in 1936 shortened the official mourning period from one year to nine months…”
The good news about London’s dead is that there is now greater interest in the dead and cemeteries, and people are taking steps to preserve cemeteries. Some of this is due to the growing field of genealogy. Much of the interest is due to preservationists and historians. Whatever the reason, this is a topic that is important not just in London, but throughout the world.
In my naivete, I never gave much thought to the question of what happened to old bodies until my visit to Pere LaChaise, when I saw that they were recycling an old empty-looking vault. Of course...once the remains have disintegrated, why not re-use the precious real estate? What I didn't realize was that for centuries, people thought of their burial spot (especially in a churchyard) as leased space. They did not expect to rest in peace until the Judgment Day; they were content to occupy a plot until their body decomposed and made room for the next corpse. Apparently under normal circumstances, a person was happy to get a good 10 years in a churchyard. But as the population grew and the space was at a premium, the resting period grew shorter and shorter until bodies were being exhumed before they even had a chance to fully decompose. Where did all the throw-away bodies get dumped?
This is where the comprehension starts to break down, at least in my mind. Perhaps it just wasn't well documented, but in the reading I was stymied by the contemplation of tens of thousands of dug up bodies and coffins being carted away to somewhere. The author made it clear that Catacombs were not widely used, especially in the Middle Ages. Burning of remains created riots (in the early days), so that was not an option. I would like to have known how they dealt with this problem, but the book's concentration was on finding and creating new graveyards, while diverting the populace's attention away from overcrowded churchyards. Of course, there were also the many plagues, which overtaxed an already delicate situation.
The attitude of people toward death in the Middle Ages was much more pragmatic than our own, and it seems that the cult of death really took a turn during the 19th century. The last 2/3 of the book covered the Victorians and later, where we see the growth of the whole funeral industry up to its most extreme (and expensive) excesses. Grand new cemeteries were built outside the city by landscape architects designed to be enjoyed by the living; specially constructed trains carried mourners great distances to the funerals that took place in the adjoining chapels. World War I put an end to the showy funerals and extended mourning periods, as suddenly there were no bodies to bury (if the dearly departed was a soldier), and not enough time to waste on extravagant shows of grief.
This interesting book gives us many anecdotal examples of related issues, such as body snatchers and suicides, abuses and putrefaction beneath chapel floors, the development of cremation. Although it left a lot of questions unanswered, Necropolis proved a good read from beginning to end.