Rest in peace Ma’am
cemetery symbols, Christianity, death, Felbrigg, Free masons, Funerary art, graveystone, headstones, iconography, memento mori, monuments, mourning, reading gravestones, skulls, symbols, tombstones, Victorian Death
Popular graveyard images explained
This is the companion piece to my stroll through a graveyard post, which covered a very brief history of British cemeteries and headstones. In this post, I’ll be looking at the meaning of some of the common images and symbols that can be found on historic headstones up and down the UK. It’s important to be aware that because the topic of graveyard iconography is so vast, and can vary widely depending upon locality and beliefs, this article is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead I will focus on some popular eighteenth and nineteenth century memorial styles, many of which I have come across during coronavirus inspired rambles around my local area.
Anchors have Christian symbolism as well as a more prosaic meaning denoting sailors or the Royal Navy. In Christian tradition they go back to the catacombs of the early Christians, and were secrete symbols of Christianity, like the fish. Anchors symbolise hope. The example below is from a war grave and denotes a member of the Royal Navy, the other from an earlier grave, possibly of a mariner.
Cemeteries are often filled with sculpted angels casting their benign gaze over the graves of the Victorian departed. There are several popular types of angel with different meanings. Grieving angels drape themselves in mourning over the dismantled altar of life, angels clutching flowers rue the fleeting nature of life, praying angels emphasise religious faith. Other angels are more judgemental – the recording angel with their book and the angel Gabriel with his horn, a sentinel waiting to call the Christian dead to rise of the day of the last judgement. and some angel images are unique, such as in the monument to Mary Nichols in Highgate Cemetery, which depicts an angel sleeping on a bed of clouds.
Arches symbolise victory of life or victory in death  or the gateway to heaven . This would send a reassuring message to the mourners as they passed under the grand arched entrance to All Saints Cemetery in Jesmond.
Arrows are memento mori, symbolising the dart of death piercing life, and can sometimes be found wielded by skeletons, to drive home the link to mortality. The arrow below is linked with a pick, symbolising mortality, and a knot which was often used to symbolise eternal life.
Books can appear in a variety of forms, open, closed, piled up. They can represent the Bible or word of God, the book of life, learning. A closed book might symbolise a long life, an open or draped book can symbolise a life cut short (4). The example below acts as a Memento Mori, reminding the living that they too will die, and is augmented with a skull and bones rising up through the earth.
Chest tombs were popular from the seventeenth century, the leger stone on top, with details of the deceased, was raised up on a chest-like structure. The body is not buried in the chest, but beneath the structure. The example below is from St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire, and incorporates the skull and crossbones iconography (the essential remains that Christians believed were required in order to rise on Judgement Day).
Cherubs often symbolise innocence and are popular on the tombs of children. The cherub below left is from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, and rests its elbow on a skull, an obvious symbol of death and mortality. The example on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle, the cherub holds arose and flower bud, the rose can symbolise heavenly perfection or mother, while the broken bud could represent the fleeting nature of the young lives commemorated by the monument .
Clouds represent the heavens, below, an angel peeks out from behind the clouds, which are pierced by the rays of the sun.
Columns again hark back to a classical tradition. A broken column represents a life cut short, often the head of the family. The example on the left is from Jesmond Old Cemtetery, Newcastle, while the one on the right, with the addition of a wreath for remembrance is from Highgate Cemetery, London.
Coats of arms
Usually designates a family or individual or location. The example below seems to be from a proud Novocastrian, as it was erected in St Andrew’s church in Newcastle and the crest bears some similarity to the coast of arms of Newcastle (three towers), rather than to the family name of the deceased. It also shows a mason’s compass and set square.
The kingdom of heaven.
Doves can be seen flying downwards and upwards, with broken wings and carrying olive branches. Broadly speaking a dove flying up is the soul flying up to heaven, flying down, the holy spirit coming from heaven.
As discussed in my previous post A stroll through a graveyard a flying faces developed out of the Memento Mori image of the flying skull, reminding the living that they too would die. Winged skulls gradually morphed into flying faces during the eighteenth century, representing the soul flying up to heaven. Later the face became cherubic and represented innocence. The Three examples below are, from left to right, from All Saints Churchyard, Newcastle and Holy Trinity, Washington Tyne & Wear.
See world, below.
Hands are popular motifs on headstones and can have a variety of meanings, from the hand of god coming out of the clouds, to the offering of prayers in blessings. Hands can also indicate that the deceased is going to heaven (pointing upwards) or may have died suddenly (pointing downwards). The example below left shows a handshake, which can be between a married couple or fraternal, alternatively, if one hand appears limp, it can indicate God taking the hand of the departed . The example on the right shows a hand with a heart, this can indicate charity and generosity, but it can also indicate the deceased was a member of the Oddfellows fraternity .
Hourglasses are memento mori, reminders of mortality and that life on earth passes quickly. They can appear with wings, to symbolise how ‘time flies’ and on their side, to demonstrate how time has stopped for the deceased. Below left, from an eighteenth century headstone from St Andrews, Newcastle, on the right, a more pointed link between the hour glass and mortality, from Holy Trinity, Washington, Tyne and Wear.
Ledger stones are flat against the ground and often cover family plots, the stones filling up as the graves receive more burials.
Memento Mori Scenes
Many early headstones from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries combine a variety of memento mori images into scenes designed to remind the living of their own mortality and the importance of living a good life in order to go to heaven. The examples below are from various graveyards around Newcastle and show that some masons had seemed to have a particular flair for the macabre!
Obelisks are an ancient Egyptian symbol that represented life and health, and/or a ray of the sun. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Europe was gripped by a passion for all things Egyptian. Obelisks became popular as funerary monuments, particularly in the Victorian era. On the left, obelisks in an overgrown patch of St Peters, Wallsend, and on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle.
Many headstones list the occupation of the deceased, but some go further, below left is an example of an artist’s paint palette and to the right, a classical scene depicting a physician, naturally enough, on the side of the monument to a doctor.
Funerary portraiture can be found on monuments and tombs from ancient times and isn’t always restricted to those of historical importance or aristocratic lineage. In the Victorian period, photography became more widespread and trends such as post mortem photography were embraced, photographs can even found on some headstones from the period. Preston Cemetery in North Shields has a rare surviving example, I viewed it once many years ago, but I’ve not been able to locate it since.
The example below left, is that of Dr James Milne at St Peter’s churchyard Wallsend (the above classical scene is also from his monument) a man well respected locally, the monument was erected by his friends. The other example shows renowned renaissance humanist scholar, and one-time tutor to Mary Queen of Scots, George Buchanan, and can be found in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Memento mori symbols, carried by Death or the grim reaper, symbolising the cutting off of life. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard incorporates the hourglass to emphasise the fleetingness of time.
Sexton’s are the church officials who look after the churchyard and dig graves. Their tools can appear on gravestones as an indication of their occupation, or more generally as a symbol of mortality. This example is from the Covenanters Prison, in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Shells can be used as a decorative motif, but also have a Christian origin, in particular scallop shells are associated with pilgrimages (still popular today on the Camino Trail). After the Jacobite rebellions in the eighteenth century, they could also be a political gesture, indicating allegiance with the king over the water. The example below is from the seventeenth century mausoleum of the infamous Bloody Mackenzie in Grey Friars Kirkyard.
Whether winged or floating above cross bones, skulls represent mortality and act as Memento Mori. Trevor Yorke notes that from the medieval period onwards, it was believed that the skull and crossbones were the bare minimum bodily parts required to ensure resurrection on the day of judgement.
Originally an ancient Egyptian symbol for health that entered the western tradition via the Greek Ouroboros, a snake swallowing it’s own tail, symbolises eternal life. This example is from All Saints Cemetery, Jesmond, Newcastle.
Square and compass (Masonic/Freemasons)
The square and compass is a found on the funerary monuments of members of the Freemasons, often accompanied by a ‘G’ representing God and Geometry. The Square and compass are a reminder to Freemasons to keep their actions within the tenets of Freemasonry .
Table tombs have the ledger stone on top, supported by legs and forming a table structure. The burial is beneath. The examples below are from Tynemouth Priory in Tyne and Wear.
Torches represent human life, death, and eternal life. If they are pointing down and have no flame they represent a life extinguished, whereas if they are pointing down but still alight the represent the eternal life of the soul. The example below symbolises bodily death but the eternal life of the soul.
Urns hark back to the funerary urns of ancient Greece, in which cremated remains would be interred. They became popular from the eighteenth century and endured into the Victorian period, possibly because they denote the body being cast off in preparation for the souls journey to heaven . They could also appear with flames atop – symbolising the eternal flame of friendship or religious fervour. Other urns appear are covered with drapery, which can symbolised the curtain between life and death or the casting off of worldly garments and often denoted the death of an older person  (and when coupled with a weeper, became a popular classical image).
Wheatsheaves are most often associated with a long life, although where only few stalks are found, this can indicate that the deceased was young. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard, is combined with a skull and crossbones.
Women in mourning (weepers)
The image of a woman, with loose flowing hair, mourning over a tomb or an urn, was very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In this example from Jesmond, the weeper holds a wreath (see below for meaning).
The world or globe image represents worldly pleasure and is often coupled with death in order to emphasis the wages of worldly pleasure (and sin) are death, as shown in these examples from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.
Wreaths are classical in origin, being awarded to athletes in the ancient Olympic games. In funerary art their circular shape represents eternal memory. Wreaths of bay leaves represent triumph over death, while wreaths of roses, like the example below, from Highgate Cemetery, London, can represent virtue and heavenly bliss (12).
This list represents only a snippet of the cemetery symbols that can be found. I hope this encourages you to go out and explore your local historic cemeteries and graveyards and to be able to read some of the richly symbolic funerary language used by our ancestors. Please remember to be quiet and respectful when you visit your local historic cemeteries, some may still be in use, and many monuments may be fragile.
Happy headstone hunting!
Snider, Tui, 2017, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
Yorke, Trevor, 2017, Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- The Cemetery Club, Symbols
- BBC, Victorian Memorial Symbols
- Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
- The Cemetery Club, Symbols
Published 16 May 2021, 230 pages
Buy now on Amazon, click here: The Haunted Mirror: History, Folklore and the Supernatural from the Haunted Palace Blog (The Haunted Palace Blog Collection): Amazon.co.uk: ., Lenora, Jessel, Miss: 9798505220504: Books
A compendium of dark history, strange folklore and mysterious hauntings culled from the Haunted Palace Blog. Lenora and Miss Jessel have selected and re-worked some of their favourite posts for your enjoyment.
Did you know that a prodigious palace once stood in the London Borough of Wanstead and Woodford but a dissolute Earl threw it all away, leaving his heart-broken wife to haunt its ruins forever? Or that Victorian tourists flocked to the grim spectacle provided by the Paris Morgue – the best free theatre in town? Or that a murderous jester is reputed to have lured people to their deaths at a castle in Cumbria? Join us as we explore a past populated by highwaymen, murderers, eccentrics, and lost souls.
Lavishly illustrated with specially commissioned art, engravings and photographs from the Haunted Palace Collection, and national collections.
With the Coronavirus lockdowns of 2020/2021 many of us have had to find our pleasures closer to home than usual. One of my favourite past-times has been visiting some of my local graveyards and taking a leisurely stroll amongst the tombstones and monuments.
Overgrown urban cemeteries and churchyards provide a haven for nature, an escape from the bustle of the modern world, and respite from the claustrophobia of a national lockdown. Often protected from traffic and pollution, and hidden from sight behind high walls, they can easily be overlooked by passers by. Yet within those high walls you can find butterflies dancing on delicate wildflowers, squirrels sheltering in the branches of ancient trees and foxes hiding amongst the tangled brambles. Cemeteries are also steeped in cultural history and rich in public art, with elaborate memorials and tombs, describing a rich and varied iconography of death and remembrance. I have done a separate post on some of the common cemetery symbols found on headstones.
As the subject of burial and funeral monuments is a vast one, this article will be by nature selective, focusing mainly on traditional Christian burial practices found in mainly English cemeteries and churchyards. However, it is important to note that there are also many examples of different regional styles and practices as well as those of other faiths, all of which can also be found in our historic graveyards.
A very brief history of traditional British cemeteries and their monuments
Romans, Saxons and Medieval burial
Many British churchyards sit on much older pre-Christian burial grounds, and may contain remnants of those earlier times, occasionally these remnants can be seen today. It has been suggested that the Romans may have invented (or at least developed the idea of) the headstone as we know it . The Roman tombstone below (L) can be found in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Washington, Tyne and Wear, and does look remarkably similar to later headstones.
Medieval churchyards did not contain many stone grave markers, so were ideal places for community activities such as fairs and village games (until the puritans put a stop to jollity, that is). Often the only stone monument was a large cross, although many of these were destroyed during the Reformation of the sixteenth century . The example below (M) is the Mercian Cross, a Saxon cross from the eighth-tenth centuries, which can be found in St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire. In this period, only those of very high status would merit an individual burial and memorial, many people would expect to end up in a charnel house. Initially ‘wet’ bodies (i.e. fresh, fleshy bodies) were stored in stone coffins until they decomposed and became ‘dry’ (i.e. bones). The bones would then be stacked in the charnel house. The stone coffins below (R) can be seen at Tynemouth Priory, Tyne and Wear. If you were wondering where the corpse liquor went, some stone coffins also contained a hole to let it drain out .
From pomp and purgatory to the resurrection men
Our relationship with the dead has changed over time. Purgatory as an actual place was introduced as a concept from the late twelfth/early thirteenth centuries. This lead to a drive to encourage the living to ease the passage of the deceased through purgatory with prayer. Gruesome monuments, such as Cadaver Tombs, (which depicted the deceased as rotting corpses) were often linked to chantry chapels to elicit prayers for the dead. This provided the living a sense of moral and religious satisfaction while assisting the dead towards salvation [4, 5]. Other, less macabre tomb monuments, called gisants, emphasised the earthly status of the deceased, showed them in fine regalia, as if in prayer or sleeping.
While most people in the medieval period were buried in unmarked graves, tombs or memorials of the great and (often not so) good were sighted inside churches and the higher the status of the deceased, the closer to the altar (and God) they would be placed. In later times this also protected the dead from body snatchers. This resulted in some very dubious practices, such as at Enon Chapel in London, where cut price burials resulted in the dead being piled up to the rafters in a tiny crypt, in order to line the pockets of the rapacious minister. In the past, these intramural burials in churches were notorious for causing a bit of a stink (and worse in the case of Enon chapel), but such burials can result in problems even today. Recently, the floor of Bath Abbey, which is paved with ledger stones, flat grave markers, was restored to stop the floor sinking into the cavities caused by the decayed bodies beneath. (Somerset Live).
The Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century, which made the concept of purgatory redundant for many, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that ousted the party-pooping puritans, combined with a rising class of wealthier farmers and merchants, created a sea-change in funeral monuments. From the end of the seventeenth century churchyards begin to fill up with tombstones, recording personal status, family ties, occupation and epitaphs, as well as some very macabre iconography .
As with burials inside the church, burials outside had their pecking order. Burial on the east side of a churchyard was preferred, with the body facing east in order to rise on the day of judgement. Burial on the north side was reserved for the illegitimate, criminals, suicides and strangers, and was therefore a less favourable location . There is a wonderful description of this in MR James’s The Ash Tree, the executed witch, Mrs Mothersole, is said to have been buried on ‘that unhallowed side of the building‘. In some areas these ‘undesirable’ burials would take place outside the church yard itself or the corpse would have to be unceremoniously bundled over the wall of the churchyard, after being refused the usual welcome by the vicar at the lych-gate .
While post mortem social status was a pressing issue for some, from the late eighteenth century, body snatchers were a real fear for many. This was the case right up until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 (which solved the problem of supply of cadavers for the anatomists table by co-opting the corpses of the poor and destitute). To protect the dearly departed from such ‘resurrection men’ elaborate precautions were put in place and they can still be found in some graveyards today.
Famous examples of post mortem protection can be found in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh which boasts a very fine mortsafe. While the infamous Burke and Hare may have preferred to obtain their bodies by seeking out ‘future corpses' in the drinking dens of the old Town, many others were stealing corpses from graveyards to supply Edinburgh’s famous medical schools.
As more people were able to afford permanent grave markers, churchyards began to fill up and certain styles of headstone became popular. Headstones began short and stout, gradually becoming taller and less chunky as the centuries progressed – although this could depend on the quality of the local stone. More elaborate ornamentation and inscriptions became popular, however, the execution of the design could depend on the skill of the mason, many of whom may have been illiterate, as is seen below.
The examples above, from St Andrew’s, Newcastle, and Tynemouth Priory, Tynemouth, show eighteenth century grave stones with the text cramped together, of uneven size, and occasionally with words broken over lines. The example on the right also shows some naïve attempts at decoration.
These headstones were often in three parts – decoration at the top, details about the deceased (names, dates, occupation, family ties) then an epitaph or scriptural quote at the bottom. Some stones also have the mason’s name as well.
These earlier grave stones had their inscriptions facing away from the actual burial plot, and some had a ‘body stone’ covering the burial, or a small ‘footstone’ indicating the length of the grave. In some cases the direction of the headstone was reoriented by the Victorians. The Victorians often marked the limits of a grave or family plot using kerbstones or railings .
As the times changed, so did decorative motifs, one of the most notable metamorphosis being that of the infamous grinning skull and crossbones. This first evolved into a flying head before morphing into a chubby cheeked cherub (a more sentimental, but no less disquieting images, to my mind).
Seventeenth and early eighteenth century skull and crossbones motifs, usually found in the top section of decoration, acted as a memento mori, reminding the living that they too would soon be dust (so they should behave themselves and lead good lives). This tradition evolved into flying faces, which symbolised the soul flying up to heaven, and later still, in the late Georgian and Victorian period, morphed into flying angels/cherubs, symbolising innocence (they were often used on the graves of children .
The taste for the macabre in graveyard symbols lingered well into the eighteenth century, but by the closing decades, tombstones could be found with tranquil classical iconography, in keeping with Georgian taste for all things ancient Roman and Greek.
By the nineteenth century, it was the rising urban middle classes who drove the developments of tombstone designs. Huge gothic follies, classical urns and columns sprouted up across the land. Crosses and Angels as grave markers even made a come-back, shunned after the Reformation and centuries of anti-Catholic feeling in England, they underwent a renaissance in the nineteenth century and can be found in abundance in many Victorian cemeteries.
The Civic minded Victorians also came up with the concept of the Garden Cemetery, situated in the suburbs, laid out like parks and dotted with attractive grave monuments, these cemeteries not only addressed the problems of overfull and unsanitary urban burial grounds, but made a visit to the grave of a loved one into a pleasurable day out .
The Victorians also helped to democratise death, through their more industrialised production techniques, machine cutting inscriptions, standardised patterns, and a budget range of guinea graves, and community burial clubs. As the nineteenth century progressed more and more people could have a permanent marker to meet their budget. The downside of this was that the idiosyncratic and personal memorials of earlier times were often replaced with standard shapes, such as the ubiquitous lancet gravestone, and more generic religious or moral sentiments. Of course, this doesn’t meant that the families and friends of the departed grieved any less, only that the outward language of death and the business of burial had become more of an industry [13, 14].
New materials also played their part, with machine cut inscriptions, lead lettering and occasional iron headstones (very appropriate for such an industrial age).
The twentieth century saw the mass death of the First World War, with Cenotaphs, empty tombs, for recording the deaths of millions, and many soldiers buried on foreign shores. You can find the occasional pristine war grave, striking in its simple poignancy, amongst the unruly ivy clad headstones of a previous era. However, it was inevitable that death on such an industrial scale, with so many families left grieving without a body to bury, would cause a fundamental change in how the dead were commemorated, World War I was the beginning of the end of the lavish Victorian way of death.
Today, in Britain, cremation far outstrips burial, nevertheless, you can still find some unique and personal grave monuments on occasion. A particularly poignant example can be found in Westgate Crematorium in Newcastle, where a huge black marble edifice stands for a young man, dead before his time, and which includes a marble motorbike. While this may not be to every ones taste, it is a unique and very personal memorial.
Who lies beneath
Cemeteries are filled with the famous and not so famous, all with their individual tales that remind us that these mossy and ivy cloaked monuments hid the bones of people just like us, who lived and loved and sometimes suffered.
Dame Mary Page, 1729, Bunhilll, London
Grave monuments could be very personal in the eighteenth century, one could say, too personal, as this famous monument to Dame Mary Page at Bunhill cemetery in London demonstrates. The unfortunate Dame Mary died in 1729, the inscription describes her final years “In 67 months she was tap’d [tapped] 66 times, Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation.”
The Keenleyside Monument, 1841/2, Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle
This canopied monument featuring a reclining cherub rests beneath mature trees in Jesmond Old Cemetery and hides a terrible family tragedy. The monument was erected by Thomas William and Louisa Keenleyside in memory of their children, Eleanor, 2 years old, Charles, 12 years old, and James who was 10 years old. The children died in quick succession between December 1841 to January 1842, victims of the Cholera epidemic that raged through the city. Epidemics and other diseases such as scarlet fever were common in the Victorian period, and could rip through a family taking siblings one after another. It is hard to comprehend how Thomas and Louisa came to terms with this heart wrenching loss, although this monument may have been part of that process.
Tom Sayers, 1865, Highgate Cemetery, London
You would be forgiven for thinking this monument in London’s Highgate Cemetery was the grave of a large dog, but in fact is commemorates Tom Sayers, Victorian superstar prize-fighting bare-knuckle boxer, who died in 1865. Sayers had a turbulent personal life, so the chief mourner at his funeral was his mastiff, Lion, who rode alone in a pony cart behind the hearse. Sayers kept the hound next to him even in death, and Lion was immortalised by sculptor Morton Edwards and forms the most prominent feature of Sayers monument .
For me, the apogee of cemetery design came in the nineteenth century, when over-crowded, unsanitary urban cemeteries, such as Bunhill Fields, were replaced with leafy suburban garden cemeteries. Highgate cemetery, Abney Park and Kensal Green were intended as pleasure grounds as much as for memorialising the dead. Recently, I have spent many hours exploring my local cemeteries and churchyards, discovering fascinating facts about my area – the pastoral poet buried in the centre of Newcastle, the Georgian composer, organist and music critic buried in St Andrews, as well as countless ordinary people, whose lives flicker before us briefly in their epitaphs.
The Coronavirus pandemic has claimed so many lives, however, once the pandemic itself has entered into the pages of history, I hope that we will not forget the quite pleasures of walking in these public gardens of the past and experiencing that fleeting connection with those who have gone before us.
Part 2 will look at the meaning behind some of the symbols found on headstones.
Cohen, Kathleen, 1973, Metamorphosis of a death symbol
King, Pamela, 1987, Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England
Morgan, Alan, 2004, Beyond the Grave, Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds
Ross, Peter, 2020, A Tomb With a View, The Stories and Glories of Graveyards
Rutherford, Sarah, 2008, The Victorian Cemetery
Snider, Tui, 2017, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
Yorke, Trevor, 2017, Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- Alan Morgan, Beyond the Grave, Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds
- Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- Pamela King, Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England
- Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a death symbol
- Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
- Peter Ross, A Tomb with a View, The Stories and Glories of Graveyards
- The Order of the Good Death (death positive movement)
- Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
- Sarah Rutherford, The Victorian Cemetery
- Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
- Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
- Victorian Web, Funerary monument to Thomas Sayers
bodies on display, chatelet prison, dark tourism, dead, dead house, death, house of the dead, L'affaire Billoir, Morgue, Mortuary, Murder, Paris, spectacle, suicide, temple of suicide, theatre of death, thomas cook, tourist, unidentified, Victorians
Anyone familiar with David Farrier’s recent Netflix Series Dark Tourist, will know that for a certain element of society, tourism isn’t about sun, sea and sand but about exploring the macabre, dangerous or disturbing. Far from being a new trend, this phenomena has long history. In the nineteenth century the Paris Morgue was an unlikely, but popular, attraction. Many an English traveller would turn their steps away from the famous sights of that most romantic of cities and follow the crowds towards the best free show in town.
In Thérèse Raquin Zola perfectly captures the popular appeal of the morgue, with all of its grisly drama and spectacle:
“The Morgue is a spectacle within the reach of all pockets, free for all, the poor and the rich. The door is open, anyone who wishes enters. There are fans who make detours so as not to miss a single representation of death. When the slabs are empty, people leave disappointed, robbed, mumbling under their breath. When the slabs are well furnished, when there is a good display of human flesh, the visitors crowd each other, they provide cheap emotions, they scare one another, they chat, applaud or sniffle, as at the theatre, and then they leave satisfied, declaring that the Morgue was a success, that day”
The Paris Morgue was regularly featured in journals and travel books of the era. While there was often there was an undercurrent of moral disapproval at the voyeurism inherent in the morgue’s attraction, it’s popularity as a free public spectacle knew no bounds.
But how did a civic institution become a public spectacle and was there a more serious purpose behind this most macabre institution?
A Stinking Pestilent Place
Every city has a problem with what to do with the unidentified and unclaimed dead. In Paris the Medieval period, the Order of St Catherine fulfilled this function. Later, in the reign of Louis XIV, the practice of displaying the dead to identify them was established. The very word morgue comes from an archaic verb morguer which, as Vanessa R Schwartz explains, means to stare or have a fixed and questioning gaze, which would seem very appropriate under the circumstances.
In 1718 the Dictionaire de l’Academie defined the Paris Morgue as ‘a place at the Chatelet [prison] where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public to view in order that they be recognised’ and which was composed of ‘dead bodies found in the street and also found drowned’ [p49]. Indeed, drowning victims would be the staple of the morgue for most of its existence.
Despite the public function of such morgues, those historically attached to prisons were by no means a clinical setting for viewing the dead. Corpses were often tossed on the ground in piles, left to putrefy while unfortunate visitors had to to breath in the noxious vapours as they tried to identify them. Adophe Guillot described the Basse Geole as ‘[..] a stinking pestilent place with little of the respect death deserves ‘.
The Chalelet Prison in Paris fell-foul of its royal connections during the French Revolution and was closed in 1792. But not before hosting the grisly remains of the 7 prison guards killed during the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789.
The Temple to the Dead
The growing urbanisation of Paris in the nineteenth century, which saw more people living cut off from their traditional communities, increased the chance of people dying anonymously amongst strangers. This in turn created an administrative problem of how to identify the masses of unidentified corpses that kept turning up on the streets and in the Seine.
In 1804, a new morgue was built by order of the Napoleonic Prefect, in order to address this problem. The purpose-built morgue was sited on the Ile de la Cite, at the Quai du Marche, on the corner of Pont St Michel, it was close to the river – the supplier of so many corpses destined for display in the morgue. This new classical building was purpose-built in the centre of the administrative district –it was very visible, sited on a busy road and close by the Police HQ and courts. All elements crucial to its civic function – the river to bring the bodies, the public to identify the bodies, the police to solve crime, the courts to punish the guilty.
Although this new specialised building was far better than what went before, and drew in thousands of spectators, it still had its problems; there was no private entrance for delivery of corpses, the morgue had a terrible chemical smell, and there was a huge population of large grey rats that frequented the area.
the Morgue and the Media
In the 1850’s Napoleon’s prefect of the Seine, Baron George Haussmann had grand plans for Paris. Haussmann redeveloped (some say ‘disemboweled’) the crowded Medieval Isle de la cite, to build the new more spacious Boulevard Sebastopol. The old morgue, in the heart of Medieval Paris, fell foul of ‘Haussmannization’ and was demolished. In 1864 a new and improved morgue was built behind Notre Dame Cathedral on the quai de l’Arche Veche.
The new morgue was much larger than the old, with a large Salle du Public (exhibition room) and it was endowed with more advanced facilities including rooms for autopsies, registrar and staff, a laundry (for the clothing of the deceased) and a more discreet rear entrance for corpses. By the 1870’s photography was being utilised when corpses were no longer suitable for display, and by the 1880’s refrigeration was introduced. However, despite these sound scientific improvements and the emphasis on the civic duty of displaying the corpses to the public in order to aid identification, there remained a huge element of sensation and entertainment in a visit to the morgue. In the public imagination, which was fuelled by the popular press of the day, the morgue was intrinsically linked to suicide, murder and human tragedy.
A visitor to the new morgue in the 1860s would have been in for a grand spectacle of everyday drama. If the body on display was a cause celebre a visitor might have to queue for hours to gain entrance. In a single day tens-of-thousands of men, women, children, of all classes, might come to view the latest media sensation, such happened in the cases of L’affaire Billoir in 1876 & the Mystere de la rue Vert Bois in 1886. In the first case a man dismembered his lover, her body was fished out of the Seine in two packages, while the second related to an 18 month old girl found dead at the foot of a staircase. Both cases caused an ongoing media sensation. Keeping the cases in the news kept the crowds coming to the morgue in their thousands, to view the corpses and speculate on the circumstances of their demise. Ironically, in the Billoir case, while tens of thousands of visitors thronged the morgue to view his victim’s remains, less than 600 people attended his public execution. 
A visit to the morgue
The layout of the building created a kind of peep show for the crowds as they patiently jostled forwards. Billboards and posters advertised the corpses within, visitors were ushered in single file in one direction. Corpses were displayed behind vast plate-glass windows, draped with long green curtains which only succeeded in adding to the theatrical nature of the experience.
Bodies were laid out in two rows of six, naked but for a cloth covering their modestly, items belonging to them were hung up near them. In some cases, such as the Rue Vert Bois case and Mystere de Suresnes (two young girls retrieved from the Seine, triggering speculation that they might have been sisters), drama was added to the tragedy by posing them on chairs, in a kind of tableau, rather than on the cold hard slab. Due to initial mis-identification in the Suresnes case, these little corpses had to be put back on display, even after the bodies began to significantly decay, which must have been both a very macabre and a very sad sight. And as such, it was just the kind of spectacle the crowd came for: combining sensation, sentimentality and speculation.
Voyeurism and Moral Hygiene
Before refrigeration was introduced in the 1880s a constant drip of water was fed from pipes above each slab, in order to keep the bodies fresh. It is debatable how well this worked, and sometimes, such as that of the woman in the Billoir case, the body began to deteriorate and a wax model had to be substituted for the real thing.
Most of the bodies displayed were male, although women and children were also displayed (and were often the focus of intense media interest). Zola famously wrote of the morgue in his novel Therese Racine, where he touches on the erotic undertones of viewing a corpse:
“Laurent looked at her for a long time, his eyes wandering on her flesh, absorbed by a frightening desire.”
Contemporary moralists were particularly worried about threats to the risk to ‘moral hygiene’ entailed in a visit to the morgue. In particular, they feared the uncontrolled voyeurism of female visitor, women being considered the ‘weaker’ sex morally as well as physically. A visit to the morgue gave women access to view near naked male bodies. Not only women, but children were also frequent visitors to the morgue, and the effects of visiting such a macabre site on children were also a cause of public concern. None of this moral panic, however, diminished the crowds thronging the streets to gain entrance to the Morgue.
While it is true that some visitors attending the morgue might imagine that perhaps they could assist in the identification of one of the unfortunates on display, this was not the prime motive for most visitors. As Schwartz has argued, they were attending for the drama of the everyday, an interest both generated and sensationalized by the media. It was free theatre. Who knows, you might be lucky enough to witness the murderer, not quite returning to the scene of the crime, but brought low by conscience after being faced with his victim. This was not so far-fetched a scenario, the police did sometimes bring the accused to the morgue to gauge their reactions in a ‘day of confrontation’ , Clovis Pierre writing in Le Figaro described these events as ‘[a] sensational show’. It also gave the public the opportunity to participate in the drama directly. A contemporary writer, Firmin Maillard, exclaimed ‘who needs fiction when life is so dramatic’  – this was a huge element of the Morgue’s continued popularity.
It is interesting to note that the voyeurism inherent in a visit to the morgue extended beyond the corpses to its living denizens as well. Often better-off visitors came to the morgue as much to gawp at the lower classes at play, as at the deceased (whom they would have very little chance of being able to identify). One factor in common with those whose death resulted in the stigma of public display in the morgue, was that they were nearly all members of the lower classes, the poor and dispossessed of Paris were far more likely to die alone or remain unidentified. 
Innovation and Social Engineering
But of course the morgue served as far more than a public spectacle. Alan Mitchell in his article The Paris Morgue as a Social Institution in the Nineteenth Century, sees it as a positivist force, helping to revolutionise forensic medicine and policing – introducing refrigeration, pioneering forensic photography, focusing on autopsies.
It could also be seen has an attempt at social engineering: a way of turning the active and dangerously mob, who had engaged in revolutionary and subversive activity in the eighteenth century and the earlier parts of the nineteenth century, into passive and more tractable group of spectators.  Whether as deliberate policy or not, the morgue could be seen to have been a part of a wider social and political agenda in de-politicising the masses. Setting the foundation for today’s passive consumer culture, easily distracted from the bigger issues by the latest sensation or spectacle.
The final curtain
The Morgue was finally closed in 1907 due to concerns with moral hygiene and a desire to professionalize the Morgue and its functions. Its replacement was the Medico-legal Institute which remains to this day. However, the Paris Morgue of the past should not be dismissed simply as grisly voyeurism (although that certainly did play its part).
The Morgue represented a way for the authorities to institutionalise death which contributed to the improvement in scientific and forensic techniques. It also highlighted the drastic changes in rapidly industrialising societies. While the nineteenth century is famous for its obsession with the Good Death, the morgue showcased the alternative, the Bad Death. Showing death as anonymous, ignominious, public, and, the antithesis of the Good Death, an ephemeral popular entertainment.
This de-sacralisation of death, turning it from a private religious contemplation of the eternal into a public spectacle, heavily linked to current events was fed by the popular press, whose influence on popular culture was becoming more pervasive as the century progressed. It may also have been a way of allowing an increasingly secular, urbanised and disconnected people to experience the horror, the drama, and the hidden tragedies of everyday lives – from a safe distance. In some ways, not much has changed.
Photograph of the Paris Morgue public viewing room. Source unknown. Via Cult of Weird.
Sources and notes
Mitchell, Alan, ‘The Paris Morgue as a social institution in the nineteenth century’ Francia 4 1976 (581-96) 
Schwartz, Vanessa, R, 1998 ‘Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris’ University of California Press - and 
Tredennick, Bianca, http://muse.jhu.edu/article/478521 – Some Collections of Mortality: Dickens, the Paris Morgue, and the Material Corpse, The Victorian Review.
black death, bones, cadaver, chantries, chantry, Christianity, corpse, effigies, funeral, funerary, Gisant, Henry Chichele, Lincoln Cathederal, Medieval death, memento mori, mortality, purgatory, resurrection, Richard Flemming, shroud, skeleton, spirituality, Thomas Haxby, tomb, transi, York Minster
A dark secret in Lincoln Cathedral
A visitor wandering the aisles of Lincoln’s fine Gothic cathedral, awed by its vast air ribbed vaulting, intrigued by its curious Medieval carvings – such as the famous Lincoln Imp – and immersed in its impressive Medieval and Wren libraries, would be forgiven for overlooking the tomb of Richard Fleming, the bishop of Lincoln from 1420-1431.
Fleming’s monument forms part of a chantry chapel and is tucked away on the North wall of the cathedral. A cursory glance is all most visitors probably afford it – yet another elaborate memorial to a high churchman. But if you look a little closer, Richard Fleming’s tomb hides a remarkable and macabre secret. In the lower part of the monument, beneath the sculpture of the recumbent bishop in his robes of office, lies a very different image, a shrunken cadaver, ribs protruding, eyes hollow, wrapped in a winding-sheet. The sculpture offers a visceral reminder of the bodily decay, awaiting high and low alike, after death. Fleming’s tomb is one of the earliest English examples of the Transi or Cadaver Tomb in England. But why would a prominent and influential churchman chose to have himself depicted as food for worms?
What’s in a name
Kathleen Cohen, in her fascinating book Metamorphosis of a death symbol, explains that the word transi derives from the latin verb transire – trans to cross, ire to go and that this links in with the French word transir, in use from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and which means ‘to die’ or ‘to pass away’ or ‘ to go’. Transi tombs can, using this basis, be interpreted as depicting the transitional body, from life, to death, and onwards to resurrection.
Transi or as they are more commonly know, cadaver tombs are similar but also distinct from the more familiar Medieval tombs, known as gisants, which depicted the medieval deceased recumbent and dressed clothes befitting their rank and station. In stark contrast, the transi figure presents the viewer with the deceased in an advanced state of decomposition, sunken eyes, prominent ribs, even covered in toads, snakes and vermin (although this was always more popular on the continent, particularly Germany, rather than in the British Isles).
Cadaver tombs could be double deckers or single – Richard Fleming’s is a fine example of the double-decker with the gisant style representation atop the cadaverous one, while the sadly battered and worn cadaver tomb in York Minster, in the west aisle of the north trancept, is an example of the single-decker, with deceased represented only as a decayed corpse. The York tomb is attributed to Treasurer Thomas Haxby (1418-1425) but according to research by Dr Pamela King, may in fact belong to Treasurer John Neuton, founder of York Cathedral’s Medieval library.
Possibly the most famous cadaver tomb in England belongs to Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury between 1414 – 1443, and is a fine example of the double-decker transi tomb. Other examples of cadaver tombs were employed by lay people, men and women alike, and even royalty (particularly in France).
Medieval Death: Plague and punishment
For many years art and architecture historians shied away from examining any deeper meaning in these grisly monuments, seeing at most either a simple didactic Memento Mori function – reminding the living that they too will die, or a psychological reaction to the horrors of the Black Death. The plague that had killed between 30-60% of Europe’s population had peaked in the 1340’s and many felt that its impact was expressed in these monuments and other Morbid medievalisms. However, the plague argument can be challenged by the fact that there had been regular outbreaks of plague before the Black Death. Perhaps most convincingly, Italy, the origin of the Black Death in Europe, and which suffered huge numbers of deaths, did not evolve a strong cadaver tomb tradition at this time. So, while the Black Death may have had some influence on the medieval taste for the macabre, it was not necessarily the driving force behind the development of the cadaver style tomb. 
In fact, more recent research by Kathleen Cohen in her 1973 work Metamorphosis of a death symbol and in 1987 Dr Pamela King’s PhD thesis Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England have added new dimensions of temporal and spiritual complexity to these remarkable and shocking monuments. They argue that they can be viewed as both a reaction to changing social and political situation of the fifteenth century a time when church and nation-state were becoming ever more intertwined – and as a part of the broader spirituality of the Medieval past. They may be viewed then, not as a simple Memento Mori didactic with the viewer, but a reaction to contemporary issues faced by the church as well as a crucial part of the souls journey through purgatory – a dramatic means for soliciting the prayers of the living for the benefit of the dead.
A Morbid Taste for Bones, The state of the soul after death
As mentioned above, while it is true that lay people, both men and women chose the cadaver tomb for their funerary monument, churchmen seemed particularly drawn to this style of memorial and may have been instrumental in its initial dissemination. Cohen and others have suggested that this may in part be due to the fact that during the 15th century the church underwent a radical change due to the rise of the nation-state. As more and more powerful men were rewarded for their loyalty to king and country with ecclesiastical preferments, the church became vastly wealthy and inextricably linked to worldly power. Henry Chichele (1363/4 – 1443) was a prime example of this type of man: a high-flying ecclesiastical lawyer who was rewarded by Henry V for services rendered to the crown with the archbishopric of Canterbury, in 1414.
Chichele, like many of his contemporary churchmen, chose the cadaver tomb. And make no mistake, these tombs would have been deliberately chosen by their future occupants, not picked for them by relatives after death. In a ‘double-decker’ the incorruptible office held by the individual is depicted in the gisant style sculpture above – showing the individual in all the pomp and glory of their office. Beneath, the corrupt human form is depicted decaying and gnawed by worms. But what was the message they were trying to convey?
Medieval art and literature often portrayed the body as intrinsically sinful. Images of a vain and luxurious life were often counterpoised with images of the consequences of sin suffered after death. The state of the soul after death was of huge importance to Medieval people. Images such as the Danse Macabre, Mort Roi (king death) and the three quick and the three dead, emphasised that worldly vanity and glory would not help the soul awaiting judgement. This preoccupation with the state of the soul after death was because Medieval people believed that upon death, the bulk of them would end up in purgatory for an indeterminate period before they reached their final destination, be it heaven or hell. One of the prime purposes of most medieval tombs was, therefore, to elicit prayers from the living to speed the deceased person’s passage through purgatory to heaven. Cadaver tombs were no different, many, such as that of Richard Fleming, being associated with their own chantry chapel precisely for this purpose.
It was also an element of Medieval Christian belief that the death provided not only a release from the sins of the mortal body, but also from the original sin of Adam. It was thought that the life of an individual from cradle to grave was a re-run in microcosm of mankind’s fall from Grace. And with the fall from Grace came the hope for resurrection. Pamela King decodes the cadaver tomb imagery thus: the physically corrupt body is an allegory for the soul, the Transi image therefore provides, to paraphrase Dr King, an accessible figure for a metaphysical state. 
Part of this concern for the soul expressed itself in a wish to humiliate or abase the mortal (and sinful) body in order to save the soul. Not only wealthy and powerful churchmen could wish to patch up the disjoint between their worldly success and their Christian faith. John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel (1408-1435) chose a cadaver tomb. Arundel was a highly successful and able commander during the latter part of the Hundred Year’s War. During his short but highly successful military career he accrued many titles and lands for his services. Although he died of wounds in France, his will stipulated he be buried in the FitzAlan Chapel at Arundel Castle, his tomb is a double-decker cadaver tomb.
In an aside provided by Kathleen Cohen, Arundel, despite being praised as the ‘English Achilles’ for his military skill, could also be ruthless and cruel. En route to fight in France it is said that he rounded up 60 or so women and girls from a convent in Southampton to ‘amuse’ his troops while at sea. The unfortunate women, having been raped by the soldiers, were then tossed overboard when a storm overtook the troop ships. It would seem then, at least to modern eyes, that a powerful and wealthy individual choosing a tomb that humbles and humiliates the body as an act of Christian piety in death, could also display a certain degree of hypocrisy.
Overall though, the transi image can be seen not solely as a reminder that the glories of high office may seem to be long-lasting, but sinful mortal bodies will all end up as food for worms, but also that death and decay are an inevitable part of the process that ultimately lead to resurrection of the good Christian soul. 
The End of purgatory and the rise of pagan glory
The fashion for cadaver tombs ran from the fifteenth century to the mid sixteenth century (and beyond, John Donne commissioned an extraordinary monument that would seem to have been influenced by this tradition). However as the religious climate of Europe changed with the protestant reformation in the sixteenth century, transis too, began to change. As the new protestant ideology promoted by Martin Luther (1483-1546) and others, rejected the idea that good deeds and indulgences from the church would get you into heaven, and promoted the idea that entry to heaven was based on God’s grace alone, the existence of purgatory was questioned. And if there was no purgatory then there was no need for elaborate tombs and chantry chapels designed to elicit prayers from the living for the dead soul.
The Renaissance also brought with it new ideas that contrasted with the Medieval mindset, including the concept of commemorating the deceased and their worldly deeds. So, while cadaver tombs continued to be built, in particular by royalty, they began to display a kind of pagan sense of glory instead of the Medieval focus on humility and abasement of the body associated with these types of tombs. One prime example of this change is the tomb of Henri II and Catherine Medici, at the Basilica St Denis, built between 1560-1573. Catherine, who was alive when the tomb was created, is said to have disliked the first emaciated image created for her and commissioned a second one. The replacement sculpture is said to have been based on a Venus from the Uffizi in Florence   and presents a very different image from the cadaverous worm riddled transis of the previous century. While the cadaver tomb still undoubtedly pointed to the resurrection of the soul, in this instance at least, royal vanity demanded a pagan aesthetic!
Cadaver tombs developed from a combination of factors – the concern for the state of the sinful soul after death – its need for prayers in order to achieve salvation, the conflict faced (in particular, but not solely) by high churchmen in relation to growing temporal power versus the spiritual asceticism of Christianity. Although it is hard to imagine that a modern viewer of such a tomb would not take away some form of Memento Mori didactic, it would seem that this was not their primary purpose as understood by Medieval people. As Protestantism spread through Europe, and the Renaissance provided a new emphasis on commemorating the dead, the cadaver tomb changed in style and purpose.
Regardless of their ultimate meaning, a modern viewer, coming across one of these macabre monuments is given a thought-provoking and startling insight in to the Medieval mind.
You can find some notable transi tombs in England in York Minster, Lincoln Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral.
Sources and notes
Uncredited images by Lenora.
Brown, Sarah, The Mystery of Neuton’s Tomb
Cohen, Kathleen, 1973, ‘Metamorphosis of a death symbol’  
King, Pamela, 1987, ‘Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England’ 
body bugs, burial, Burial Act, Burial reform, Cemeteries, churchyard, crypts, dancing on the dead, Enon Chapel, George Graveyard Walker, London, Mr Howse, open sewer, pyramid of bones, vaults, Victorian
Slums, sewers, corpses, a corrupt clergyman, a pyramid of bones, and …dancing on the dead. Sometimes the Victorian’s failed, quite spectacularly, to live up to their prim and proper reputation.
London’s burial grounds: a mass of putrefaction
London in the mid nineteenth century had a problem: a burgeoning industrial and commercial centre with a population pushing at 2.5 million living souls, it also had an ever growing population of the dead. Inner city burial had been carried out in London for centuries -it has been observed that London, even today, is one huge grave, if you only know where to look. But by the mid nineteenth century fears of disease spread by the miasma from inner city graveyards and a fashion for wealthier people to be buried in suburban cemeteries, meant that London’s remaining inner city burial grounds were often terribly overcrowded and unsanitary. One such place, the ‘Green Ground’ on Portugal Street, a burial ground for the nearby workhouse, was described by George Walker as:
‘[A] mass of putrefaction’ and ‘The soil of this ground is saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescence,’ the author noting that ‘The living here breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated by the odour of the dead.’ 
It was not uncommon for gravediggers to chop into or even discard earlier burials in order to cram new ones into overcrowded graveyards:
‘What a horrid place is St Giles Churchyard! It is full of coffins up to the surface. Coffins are broken up before they are decayed, and bodies are removed to the “bonehouse” before they are sufficiently decayed to make removal decent’
So reported the Weekly Despatch in September 1838.
No wonder that women rarely attended burials. Yet these places were often the only resort open to the poor. One scandalous case that provided a catalyst for a change was the infamous Enon Chapel….
Enon Chapel – undercutting the competition
Close to the Strand, on the west side of St Clement’s lane, an insalubrious neighbourhood was to be found. Accessed via a narrow court, Carey Street offered slum housing and overcrowding to the poorest of the poor. It was here in 1822, that an enterprising and cynical Baptist minister, Mr W Howse, founded his ministry: saving souls and selling burials. Enon Chapel itself, fitted into this down at heel locale, sited, as it was, above an open sewer which ran though its vault.As many scholars have noted, prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832, fear of the resurrection men was strong. Burke and Hare had yet to set up their fearsome murder trade north of the Border, but before them were others, stealing fresh corpses from graveyards for the anatomists table. This popular fear may have been one of the factors in Mr Howse’s calculations in setting up his burial business at Enon. It had a vault. At barely 59 feet by 12 feet it wasn’t a large vault, but Mr Howse was an enterprising individual and knew how to spin a profit from almost nothing. In 1823 Enon was licensed for burials.
Burials in the vault at Enon Chapel were a mere 15 shillings. This compared very favourably to the competitors – close by at St Clement Danes it cost £1.17s2d for an adult burial, and £1.10.2d to bury a child – and that only covered a churchyard burial. At a time when poor families would often have to warehouse their dead in their homes until they had saved enough for burial, Enon Chapel had a clear advantage over the competition: offering both secure and, more importantly, affordable burials.
Things went well for Mr Howse for a number of years, if people marvelled at how capacious the tiny vault was, nobody asked any awkward questions. Even when worshippers retched into their hankerchieves or fell unconscious at the noxious stink that was rife in the chapel, especially in warm weather, they said nothing. It may have been harder to ignore the long black flies that emerged from the decaying coffins, or the ‘body bugs’ that would infest worshippers hair and clothes, and neighbours of the chapel noted that meat, if left out, would putrefy within an hour or two. By the 1830’s rumours were beginning to circulate, but still nobody suspected the true scale of the horror beneath their feet.
A Modern Golgotha uncovered
In 1839, following some concerns with goings on at Enon, the Commissioner of Sewers inspected the open sewer under the Chapel with the view that it should be covered or vaulted. However, their investigations took a grusome turn when they discovered human remains, some of them mutilated, discarded in the sewer – whether by design or accident, it was not clear. Oddly enough, despite the sheer horror of this discovery, the remains were not removed and burials did not stop. Mr Howse continued his profitable venture burying up to 500 people a year in the vault until his death in 1842. In total around12,000 people were buried in a vault measuring only 59 feet by 12.
In part, he appears to have managed to cram so many corpses into so limited a space because he discarded the coffins (he and his wife used them for firewood). This would no doubt have increased the stench exponentially – Julian Litten, in his book The English Way of Death, notes that intramural vault burials usually required a triple encasing for the corpse, in both wood and soldered lead, so as to ensure that the coffin was water-tight and air-tight . Discarding the outer shell of the coffin, Howse disposed of the occupants in deep pits filled with quicklime to help the bodies decompose.
It was also said that extensive building work, such as at Waterloo Bridge, allowed Howse to secretly remove upwards of sixty cart loads of decomposed human remains for use as landfill and bone-meal in the building trade; other remains were unceremoniously dumped in the Thames. It said that it was not uncommon to find a disembodied skull rolling down the streets around Enon Chapel.
Dancing on the dead
When Howse died in 1842, burials ceased and Enon Chapel was closed. The new tenant, Mr Fitzpatrick, took up residence in 1844. Despite making the surprising discovery of a large quantity of human bones buried under his kitchen floor, he was not put off, and simply reburied them in the chapel. Later tenants, a sect of Teetotallers, went one better. In the true spirit of Victorian enterprise, combined with a large and profitable dash of Victorian ghoulishness, they reopened Enon Chapel for dances using the great marketing tagline of ‘Dancing on the dead’:
‘Enon Chapel – Dancing on the Dead – Admission Threepence. No lady or gentleman admitted unless wearing shoes and stockings’
Who says teetotallers don’t know how to have fun!
The Poor Man’s Guardian, somewhat disdainfully, reported on these events in 1847:
‘Quadrilles, waltzes, country-dances, gallopades, reels are danced over the masses of mortality in the cellar beneath”
The dances seem to have been very popular, proving that even the Victorian poor, many of whom may have known people interred beneath them, had a dark sense of humour. That, or a pragmatic view of their own mortality and the fleeting nature of pleasure.
George ‘Graveyard’ Walker
Not everyone appreciated this grim humour. George ‘Graveyard’ Walker, a surgeon whose practice was in the vicinity of Enon Chapel, and who had a side-line as a public health campaigner, was Not Amused. And with good reason, he had had the misfortune to have viewed Enon Chapel vault in all its gory glory, first hand. In his book, Gatherings from grave yards, a survey of 47 London burial grounds, published in 1839, Walker described it thus:
‘This building is situated about midway on the western side of Clement’s Lane; it is surrounded on all sides by houses, crowded by inhabitants, principally of the poorer class. The upper part of this building was opened for the purposes of public worship about 1823; it is separated from the lower part by a boarded floor: this is used as a burying place, and is crowded at one end, even to the top of the ceiling, with dead. It is entered from the inside of the chapel by a trap door; the rafters supporting the floor are not even covered with the usual defence – lath and plaster. Vast numbers of bodies have been placed here in pits, dug for the purpose, the uppermost of which were covered only by a few inches of earth….Soon after interments were made, a peculiarly long narrow black fly was observed to crawl out of many of the coffins; this insect, a product of the putrefaction of the bodies, was observed on the following season to be succeeded by another, which had the appearance of a common bug with wings. The children attending the Sunday School, held in this chapel, in which these insects were to be seen crawling and flying, in vast numbers, during the summer months, called them “body bugs”..’ 
As well as a genuine disgust at the way material gain had trumped over moral and religious scruples at Enon Chapel, Walker, and many others at that time, considered the proximity of these putrefying burial grounds to human habitation to be injurious to public health. It was believed that, similar to sewage, badly overcrowded burial grounds were giving off a deadly graveyard miasma. Walker, himself, had a flair for the dramatic, describing the miasma as ‘the pestiferous exhalations of the dead’.
This miasma was believed to cause diseases such as cholera and typhoid. Gravediggers and those living close by cemeteries were at particular risk, but the threat was to the population as a whole.
The public scandal of Enon Chapel and its ilk, along with the tireless campaigning of philanthropists such as George Walker and reformer Edwin Chadwick, led to a Parliamentary Select Committee being set up in 1842. The committee was tasked to look at improving London’s overcrowded and unsanitary burial places. The law took it’s time, but pressure from Walker and The National Society for the Abolition of Burials in Towns eventually forced the government into action. The Burial Act of 1852 would seal the fate of London’s overcrowded inner city burial places, allowing the government to close them down. It also and allowed the creation of suburban garden cemeteries such as Highgate and Brookwood. Cemeteries that were designed as much to be enjoyed by visitors, as to bury the dead.
Roll up, Roll up – for the gravest show on earth!
There was to be one last macabre act in the tale of Enon Chapel. In 1848 Walker purchased the Chapel with the promise that he would give the inhabitants of the vault a decent burial, at his own expense, at Norwood Cemetery. This philanthropic gesture however, was somewhat marred by Walkers morbid sense of theatre. Rather than discretely disinterring the bodies and having them respectfully removed to their final resting place, he chose to open the event to the public. To drum up interest he had attendants strolling up and down the street holding skulls, a sure fire way to entice in the average Victorian death lover. And the public came in their droves – upwards of 6000 came to tour Enon Chapel and to view the immense pyramid of bones unearthed by Walker.
Despite criticism, Walker defended his approach in a typically Victorian way, he emphasised that the spectacle was educational (the same argument used by Madame Tussaud to elevate her Chamber of Horrors to a moral level) and he wasn’t precisely selling tickets – but he did accept contributions from visitors. Less educational and more sensational was the highlight of the Enon tour. Visitors came face to shrivelled face, with the long-dead proprietor Mr Howse. ‘A stark and stiff and shrivelled corpse’ identified by his ‘screw foot’ 
A case of poetic justice, the greedy speculator responsible for the desecration of so many of the deceased, found his own final resting place disturbed in the most unseemly way.
Footnote – it’s all in a name
It is interesting to note, as Catherine Arnold does in her fascinating book Necropolis, London and its dead, which I would highly recommend, that if you look beyond the traditional explanation for the name Enon (the place near Salim where John the Baptist baptized converts), a far darker etymology emerges. Arnold points to Hitchcock’s Bible Names Dictionary which provides one possible meaning for Enon as ‘Mass of darkness’ – how very, very apt.
Enon Chapel is long since gone, the London School of Economics sits on its site now and the bones of the dead lie in an unmarked communal grave at Norwood.
If you want to find out more about London’s hidden dead, see the excellent and funny You Tube video by Caitlin Doughty and Dr Lindsay Fitzharris at the end of the sources section)
Sources and notes
Images by Lenora unless otherwise credited.
Arnold, Catharine, Necropolis: London and its dead, 2007   
Fitzharris, Dr Lindsay
Litten, Julian, ‘The English Way of Death, the Common Funeral since 1450’,1992 
Walker, George Alfred, Gatherings from Grave Yards, Particularly Those of London: with a Concise History of the Modes of Interment Among Different Nations, from the Earliest Periods. And a Detail of Dangerous and Fatal Results Produced by the Unwise and Revolting Custom of Inhuming the Dead in the Midst of the Living, 1839 
Find out where the secret burials of London are with Caitlin Doughty and Dr Lindsay Fitzharris:
ambrotype, carte de visite, daguerrotype, death, death photos, early photography, fakes, funerals, mourning, post mortem photography, rituals, the good death, the myth of the standing corpse, tintype, Victorian
~A note to the faint-hearted: this post contains photographs of dead people ~
The Victorian celebration of death
It has been noted by many other writers, that today when a loved one passes over, we celebrate their life, often avoiding or glossing over the distressing fact that they have died… almost as if it would be rude to mention it. Not so our Victorian ancestors, they positively revelled in rituals that celebrated death. This was unsurprising as it was all around them – poverty, incurable diseases and insanitary housing meant that had you lived in early Victorian England (the 1830 and 40’s) you would have been lucky to make it to your late thirties; while a fifth of children born at that time would not reach the age of five.
Yet despite these grim statistics, the Victorian fondness for funerals and funeral rituals grew out of more than just a pragmatic realisation that they would undoubtedly be attending an awful a lot of them. It was far more than that, the spiritual and religious beliefs of Victorians lead them to the view that death was something to prepare for, and that the dead should be remembered, not just in their living but in the manner of their passing. To have a ‘good death’ was important, to settle ones affairs not only materially, but spiritually as well, in preparation for the transition into the next phase of the souls existence. One aspect of this tradition which can seem macabre and slightly voyeuristic to the modern eye, is that of post-mortem photography. But creating images of the dead was not invented in the nineteenth century.
How the dead were remembered: from oil paintings to Carte de visite
Preserving the memory of the dead has a long history (and pre-history). From the monumental (think pyramids, mausoleums and tombs) to the personal and portable (such as jewelry and images). While we might find it odd to want an image of a loved one in death, in the past it was not unheard of. In the seventeenth century, when the beautiful Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, died unexpectedly in her sleep, her distraught husband had her final portrait painted, post-mortem, by non other that Sir Anthony Van Dyke. But such extravagant memento mori (translated as ‘remember that you have to die’) were the preserve of the wealthy upper classes…until, that is, the advent of photography.
Capturing the soul
Post Mortem photography was popular in the UK, USA and Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, its popularity peaking in the 1860’s and 70’s. Its rise began in the 1840’s with the birth of photography.
Louis Daguerre, one of the fathers of photography, developed his eponymous Daguerreotype in 1839. Daguerreotype images were produced on treated silver-plated copper sheets, protected by glass. The images are strange to look at and change from positive to negative, depending on the angle. The process was expensive and time-consuming – it could take up to 15 minutes to develop an exposure, and the images created were fragile (often having to be protected in cases or frames). Nevertheless it wasn’t long before they were being used to capture the likenesses of the deceased.
In 1850 the cheaper Ambrotype method superseded the Daguerreotype. This process created a positive image on glass. As with the daguerreotype, the finished product was fragile and each image was unique and could only be reproduced by the camera.
The 1860’s and 1870’s brought the tintype photograph to prominence, which as the name suggested was created on a thin sheet of metal. This method easy to produce and was popular with itinerant photographers on the move. So the photographer was able to extend beyond the studio setting to other arenas…such the open battlefield, or the private deathbed.
The biggest revolution in democratizing photography was the Carte de Visite method, patented by André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri in 1854. His method produced small images made up of albumen prints on card. The truly revolutionary aspect of this method was that he developed a way of producing up to eight negatives on one plate, thereby driving down costs. This meant that images could more easily be shared amongst family and friends. With post-mortem images, it allowed family members who were not able to be present at the deathbed or funeral, to have a final image of their loved one.
Post Mortem Photography and The Good Death
In the early and mid-Victorian period, evangelical Christianity had a strong influence on attitudes towards death and dying. Professor Sir Richard Evans noted in his lecture The Victorians: Life and Death, that the emphasis was on a ‘good death’ – ideally a peaceful and gentle transition in to the afterlife, witnessed by family and friends; where a deathbed struggle with fever or delusion occurred, it could be seen as a metaphor for the Christian struggle for redemption. Post mortem photography represents part of this tradition, offering a memento mori – an object of reflection to the yet living – as well as, more prosaically, providing symbol of social status because not everyone could afford them.
That is not to say that all Victorians were comfortable with the idea of snapping images the dearly departed – far from it. As Catharine Arnold notes in Necropolis, photographic images such ‘Fading Away’, created by Henry Peach Robinson in 1858, which used actors to depict the death of a beautiful young girl, were not universally praised. Unlike the tasteful and idealised deathbed scenes depicted in oils, the disturbing intimacy and realism created by the medium of photography seemed to intrude on the very personal and private realm of grief.
In the case of ‘Fading Away’, the image was saved from censure when Prince Albert bought a copy, thereby ensuring its popular appeal. It’s a good thing he liked images of deathbeds, because Queen Victoria commissioned both a painting and a photograph of him on his own deathbed, in 1861. These images are available to view in the Royal Collection (See links at the end of this article).
Styles of post-mortem photography ranged throughout the nineteenth century and varied from the UK and Europe to the USA. Broadly speaking the earlier images focused on head shots and close ups, with the subject apparently ‘asleep’, later more ‘naturalist’ poses were adopted -where the subject was posed as if in life, and later still the funeral group – with the family gathered round for one last photo with the dearly departed in their coffin – became popular. However the significant difference between these images and images such as ‘Fading Away’, is that post-mortem photography was intended to be viewed in the private sphere, whereas Peach Robinson’s staged image was clearly for public consumption.
Mirrors with Memories 
So, why did the Victorians do it? Why have a stranger come into your home, while you are grieving, and interfere with your loved one, simply in order to take a photo? Well, it seems that a number of factors collided to produce the right climate for it: evangelical Christianity, with its concept of the good death, technological developments, and the rise of the middle classes, along with a large dash of Victorian morbidity.
In some cases, these images may have been the only images taken of the individual, this is particularly possible with images of babies and young children. And, practically speaking, they were a way of sharing the death of a loved one with relatives unable to attend the actual deathbed.
However, as well as a personal remembrance of the individual, they were also used as a way to reflect upon death – demonstrating Victorian preoccupations with both piety and morbidity. The images allowed for a dialogue between the living and the dead – a reconciliation that the viewer too will die. A Victorian viewing these images would have been able to ‘read’ them in a very different way than we do now -identifying the spiritual narrative, shared social values, the moral lessons in these images.
Jo Smoke, writing in Beyond the Dark Veil,suggested that as well as a moral and spiritual purpose, Memento Mori can also be seen as expressing class goals by equating ‘taste and beauty as metaphors for status and style’ – after all these images were often displayed in beautiful and expensive frames or jeweled cases and not every one could afford them.
He concluded that post mortem photography successfully encompassed both the spiritual and the consumerist nature of Victorian society, stating that they ‘symbolised tangibility by stretching the inevitability of human decay into the future by investing memory into materials of great physicality’.
Identifying Post Mortem Photography
Today, the internet is flooded with images purporting to be Victorian post mortem photographs. Sometimes a sort of ‘check-list’ is deployed to identify them and although one can probably assume that an individual depicted in a coffin, is almost certainly dead, other signs such as closed or painted eyes, blank expressions, visible standing frames, or strange posture aren’t necessarily proof-positive of a post mortem photograph.
The tradition of depicting the deceased as though living, often accompanied by living relatives and children, has created even more difficulty in differentiating between what may simply be an awkward and uncomfortable looking living individual and a posed corpse.
In the above post mortem image, the dead girl is propped up by her parents, with her head on one side. She appears notably sharper than her living parents who appear slightly blurred. Even when developments in photography led to reduced exposure times, it was still difficult to remain still during the process (unless of course, you were dead). This was such a problem that the living were often supported with apparatus, such as a Brady Stand. The use of these stands has led to what some call the ‘Myth of the standing corpse’  – whereby any images of a slightly suspect individual, where a stand is visible, may be identified as post mortem (a particular problem on commercial selling sites).
However there seems to be a strong argument against the possibility that the Brady stand, or any other stand (even combined with wires), could have ever actually support the dead-weight (pardon the pun) of a corpse, in anything approaching a natural manner. [12 – see the video at the foot of this post for more on this debate.]
The image above, originally from the Petrolia Archive, appears on many sites online as a post mortem photograph. The young girl in the middle is supposed to be dead – her painted on eyes are cited as evidence for it. However, given the ease at which a photograph could be spoiled by a sudden twitch or blink during the long exposure time, it can be argued that this is not necessarily certain proof that the subject is dead.  And in fact, this could explain a lot of the blank, dead-eyed stares that gaze out from us from some of these photographs.
Other images are more obviously photo-shopped, such as this fabulously gruesome image of two sisters, which would stretch even the Victorians capacity for morbidity!
It has been said that the advent of the Kodak box brownie, allowing families to document entire lives from birth to death, caused the Post Mortem Photograph to fall out of favour,  but there was more to its decline than technical innovation. By the end of the Victorian period and beginning of the Edwardian, there was a fundamental shift in attitudes to death. For one, evangelical Christianity, with its particular interpretation of the ‘good death’, had waned. By the Edwardian period a ‘good death’ had transformed into one more familiar to us today – a death without suffering or one that took the subject unawares, such as in their sleep. As such, conversations about death and dying became less acceptable than they had been in the early and mid-Victorian periods. Catastrophic conflicts such as the First World War, also played their part in changing attitudes. Such brutal conflicts took death away from the intimate family setting, and while death could be presented as a patriotic sacrifice to the state, it often occurred violently, or to far from home to allow for a photographic memento mori to be either desirable or practically possible.
In this modern world, where we have become desensitized to the graphic images of death reported in the media, we have shut death out, except in its most extreme and impersonal form. In contrast, these quiet, contemplative and very personal images of the dead offer us the opportunity to open a dialogue with death, and to reflect on that great leveler. And of course, they also provide an ever so gentle reminder that we too will die.
Anne Longmore-Etheridge Collection:
The Burns Archive:
The Thanatos Archive:
Sources and notes
Arnold, Catharine, ‘Necropolis: London and its dead’ 2007, Simon and Schuster  
Evans, Professor Sir Richard, https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/the-victorians-life-and-death
http://metro.co.uk/2014/11/26/victorian-post-mortem-photographs-are-as-creepy-as-they-sound-4963836/ [this article contains some disputed post mortem photographs]
Mord, Jack, ‘Beyond the Dark Veil’, 2013, Grand Central Press 
https://dealer042.wixsite.com/post-mortem-photos The Myth of the stand alone corpse 
Readers of this blog might have guessed that I have a bit of a fancy for graveyards and the macabre…surely not I, hear you say! In my opinion, the Victorian’s definitely had the edge when it came to eccentric and OTT funerary practices. The London Necropolis Company with its railway service was a prime example of how the Victorian’s used a modern technology to revolutionise funerals for rich and poor alike.
A surplus of bodies
London in the nineteenth century was a burgeoning industrial and commercial centre, attracting in-comers from all over the country and the empire. Between 1801 – 1851 the population pretty much doubled. With this increase in the living, there came also in increase in the dying and soon London’s limited burial grounds were packed to overflowing. Reuse of burial plots resulted in bones and body parts being strewn about the cemeteries polluting the ground water and exacerbating the problem by increasing the risk of outbreaks of Typhoid, Measles, Smallpox and Cholera. When 15,000 Londoners were carried off by Cholera in 1848/49 it was evident that something urgently needed to be done.
A man with a plan
Into this festering scene stepped Sir Richard Broun, an entrepreneur with an eye for new technology and a fast profit. Sir Richard and his partner Richard Sprye had the innovative idea of out-of-town burials – a kind of suburbia for the dead. They hit upon the innovative idea of using the new-fangled and somewhat controversial steam-train as the method for shipping the dead out of London to Woking in Surrey.
They had done their sums and projected that up to 50,000 people a year would use the service, rich and poor alike; profits, like the dead, were sure to pile up. Their plan would help reduce the burial problem in London, hopefully reduce the risk of further outbreaks of Cholera, and help make funerals more affordable by basing them outside London.
There was some panic and frothing at the mouth amongst the steam-train phobic, who feared these noisy dirty mechanical thing-u-mabobs were hardly appropriate for the solemn dignity of a funeral service. Plus some objections from the privileged classes who feared their dearly departed might have to rub mouldering shoulders with the deceased hoi polloi; this was illustrated by Paul Slade in his article for the Fortean Times, where he quotes the Bishop of London, Charles Blomfield, in 1842, harumphing that, “It may sometimes happen that persons of opposite characters might be carried in the same conveyance,” [..] “For instance, the body of some profligate spendthrift might be placed in a conveyance with the body of some respectable member of the church, which would shock the feelings of his friends.” Quelle Horreur!
Nevertheless, despite the imminent fear of social anarchy propounded by the likes of the Bishop, Parliament gave the go-ahead and in 1852 The London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company was born. Not a name to trip off the tongue it was swiftly changed to the more succinct London Necropolis Company. The First Necropolis Train was puffing its way to Brookwood Cemetery by November 1854.
Brookwood Cemetery – London’s Necropolis
Broun and Sprye had bought huge tracts of Woking Common and created Brookwood Cemetery, at 500 acres it was the biggest cemetery in the country. Brookwood cemetery was integral to the London Necropolis Railway. The railway utilised the existing Waterloo to Southampton Railway Line, owned by the London and South Western Railway Company, and added a private branch line that went right into Brookwood Cemetery.
Londoners, both alive and dead, could alight the train at its own discreet private platform at Waterloo Station. Initially at York Street, with easy access to the Thames transport links, it was later moved to Westminster Bridge Road. The Station had to be moved to make way for the expansion of Waterloo Station, but it also allowed for a revamp of the Necropolis station to suit more modern tastes and to update its facilities such as mortuaries and to add a chapel of rest.
A Ticket to Ride
The Bishop of London need not have feared for his delicate sensibilities, the classes were tastefully kept apart and the distinction of rank preserved with both living and dead divided by religion and by class: Conformist (Anglican) and Non-conformist (everyone else); and first, second and third class.
A first class one way coffin ticket, priced at a princely £2.10 shillings, allowed the purchaser access to choose their own plot of land with a permanent marker.
A second class ticket cost £1 and allowed some choice of plot, and for an extra 10 shillings, the family could erect a permanent marker. The slight downside was that the London Necropolis Company could decide to reuse the plot.
A third class ticket cost only a couple of shillings and was often used by paupers and those being buried ‘on the parish’, they had no choice of plot, and no marker, but they did get an individual plot which was more than they could expect elsewhere. The LNC usually threw in a couple of free tickets for mourners as well (return of course – unlike the coffin).
In the station itself, First and Second Class patrons were also treated with distinction. They were given a grand entrance hall and staircase, elevators, and avenues lined with bay and palm trees. They also had the use of 5 private waiting rooms and were permitted to view the coffins being loaded onto the hearse car of the train.
The poor had to make do with a shared waiting room and they were not permitted to watch their loved ones being put on the train. Funeral cars were themselves divided by class, the more elaborate and decorated the more expensive the ticket.
Once at Brookwood Cemetery there were two stops, one for conformists on the sunny side of the cemetery and one on the north side for non conformists.
One of the interesting things is that the service had refreshment rooms that served spirits (but of course!) The living also seemed to have enjoyed this perk, often taking fortified refreshments while waiting for the return train. There are reports of some quite riotous behaviour on the return journey (I wonder which class was the worst?) The occasional driver got a bit to merry to operate the train, until the company introduced a free lunch and pint of beer as part of the drivers benefits in an attempt to keep them from the local pubs.
Death of the Necropolis Railway
Clarke indicates that the train service, right from the outset was never quite as popular or profitable as Broun and Sprye hoped. He notes that between 1854-1874 it fell far short of the estimate of 50,000 funerals per year, only managing about 3200, which Clarke calculates to be about 6.5% of the annual deaths in London. The London Necropolis Company had competitors in the form of other mortuary trains, and new cemeteries (such as Highgate Cemetery) that were built around the same time to alleviate the burial problem.
Another unforseen problem was that by the early 1900’s 1st class return tickets on the Necropolis Train were significantly cheaper than on the regular train – 6 shillings as opposed to 8. This was because Necropolis ticket prices had been set by parliament in 1854 an not amended. Clarke and Slade note that this led to many canny London Golfers dressing as mourners to get a cheap day out to their club near Brookwood.
Eventually the timetable was reviewed, Sunday trains were cut, then it reduced from daily to twice weekly. The decline was initially slow, but the final end of the London Necropolis Railway was dramatic and devastating. On 16 April 1941 in the worst night of the Blitz it was destroyed.
Reinforcing class divisions or democratizing death?
The London Necropolis Company was created to alleviate a very real social problem of burial space in a metropolis that barely had room for its living inhabitants. It used a revolutionary new technology – steam power – in an attempt to create a mass market funeral industry that aimed to monopolise the profits on death by capturing a huge inner city market.
It did not achieve its aims, other cemeteries built in London depleted its market share so it was never as profitable as intended. It probably did help to reduce health hazards in London, but so did the other new cemeteries.
What it did seem to do though, was offer the poor the opportunity to have a decent burial. They may not have been given all of the perks and privileges of the first and second class patrons: no private waiting rooms or coffin viewings and no permanent grave markers for the them; but they did get an affordable funeral and an individual plot rather than a communal pit. Plus, for the living, two return tickets for mourners were part of the package, as well as the added bonus that funerals could be held on a Sunday (until Sunday service were discontinued in 1900) so poor mourners did not have to lose a days wages if they wanted to attend a funeral.
As an example of Victorian entrepreneurship, innovative use of modern industrial technology, and with a dash of philanthropy, and a whole heap of snobbery, the London Necropolis Company and its Commuter coffin service stands out as a proud example of eccentric and morbidly practical Victorian ingenuity.
A Note on Notes & Sources
I first came across the London Necropolis Railway in Robert Wilkins wonderful ‘The Fireside Book of Death’, however as my beloved Wilkins tome is tucked away in a packing crate at the moment, I took myself to the internet and came across a plethora of articles on the London Necropolis Company – most of which used as their main source, works by the acknowledged expert on Brookwood Cemetery and the London Necropolis, John Clarke, author of ‘The Brookwood Necropolis Railway’ and ‘London’s Necropolis – a guide to Brookwood Cemetery’.
I also found the Fortean Times article by Paul Slade (who cites Clarke in his article) of great use in putting together this post.
As it seems that a great deal of the articles about this topic appear to rely on John Clarke’s research, I have not cited any sources directly in the post other than Clarke. However I have provided a list of the websites I visited.
Articles on the London Necropolis Railway
The Victorian Way of deathIt was a crisp March day when I found myself making may way down Swains Lane, the lane that cuts through West and East Cemeteries. I had always wanted to visit Highgate Cemetery, it features in so many of my favorite old horror films such as Tales from the Crypt and From Beyond the Grave (and always appears in my imagination accompanied by an overblown 1970’s horror soundtrack and maybe the odd scream as well…)
You would be unwise to wonder around Highgate Cemetery alone, many of the graves and monuments are fragile and a wrong step off the path could lead the unwary to spending some time up close and personal with a cadaver in a lead-lined vault that could be up to 30 feet deep. The cemetery is vast and has many secluded spots so rescue, should it even come, could be slow indeed….
Don’t be put off by taking a guided tour, touristy it might be, but it is also informative and the cemetery doesn’t lose any of its magic, especially if the group isn’t too large. The guides are knowledgeable about the famous and not so famous persons buried here, and can help decode the Victorian language of death which written all over their tombstones if you have eyes to see it. You only have to look at some of the more morbid Victorian paintings (dead shepherds, pining loyal hounds etc) or remember that they often had one last family photo taken with the dearly departed, to know that their attitude to death was very different from our own.
One of the first things that struck me about the cemetery was how different it was to modern cemeteries. Now gravestones are in formal rows, with standardised inscriptions – compared to Victorian exuberance (all weeping angels, obelisks and broken columns) – our way of death seems clinical and regimented. In a modern cemetery you would never get such a tragic description as that of Emma Wallace Gray who died in 1854 at the age of nineteen “From the effects of her dress having caught fire”. Her inscription reads thus:
In bloom of youth, when others fondly cling
To life, I prayed, mid agonies for death
The only pang my bleeding heard endur’d
Was, thus so early doomed to leave behind on
Earth those whom I so dearly lov’d.
The architecture too is something you would never find in a modern cemetery, the
picturesque chaos of the tombstones and mossy angels hidden amongst the trees all overgrown with grasses and wild flowers. And the monumental grandiose mausoleums; the eerie circle of Lebanon with its use of the natural landscape – the mausoleum is crowned by a Cedar of Lebanon; the austere Terrace of Catacombs cut into the hillside; and of course the fabulous Egyptian Avenue (and the Egyptians knew a thing or two about death). Walking through the dramatic gateway into the dank alley’s of the Avenue I truly felt like I was walking into another world – a city of the dead.
Highgate and the Macabre
No Victorian cemetery would be complete without some macabre tales, and the one that stuck me most was that of Elizabeth Siddall. Elizabeth was the beautiful wife and muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the foremost Pre-Raphaelite painters, and herself a talented artist. Elizabeth died tragically young, only 32, possibly as a result of addiction and depression. She was buried in 1862 by a grief-stricken Dante Gabriel who tenderly placed a sheaf of manuscript poems by her cheek – how romantic. But Elizabeth was not to rest in peace for long. In 1869 Dante Gabriel must have been feeling considerably less grief-stricken and romantic because he ordered her exhumation in order that he could retrieve his manuscript….Hmm.
The Highgate Vampire
One thing that the tour did not mention was the legend of the Highgate Vampire. This legend seems to have begun sometime in the late 1960’s, the cemetery was neglected and overgrown and attracted not only vandals but those interested in the occult. There appears to have been some reports of strange goings on the cemetery and in Swains Lane: reports of dead foxes and of a tall dark figure with burning red eyes (Christopher Lee – I wonder?) scaring dog walkers and generally lurking in a sinister way.
In 1970 an occultist called David Farrant contacted the local newspaper the Ham and High Express and the legend was born…further sightings were recorded (although accounts often varied) and it was proclaimed by Farrant that the figure had Vampiric characteristics and that he and the British Occult Society that he was part of would exorcise it. Another flamboyant figure, Sean Manchester, appeared at about this time. The ‘Bishop of Glastonbury’*[please refer to comments section for more information] soon became a rival vampire hunter and a bitter enemy of Farrant (so much so that the best ‘hammer horror’ tradition he is alleged to have challenged his nemesis to a magical duel).
Whatever the truth of the legend, the impact was devastating. On the night of the ‘vampire hunt’ hundreds of ‘vampire hunters’ (many valiantly armed with cans of beer), stormed the police cordon around the cemetery and began basically trashing the place. Needless to say no vampire was found.
During the whole Highgate Vampire frenzy not only were monuments damaged but vaults were broken into, corpses attacked and even beheaded. One gruesome story is that a local resident found a headless corpse sitting behind the steering wheel of his car. This might sound funny, but really, it’s not, these desecrated corpses were not vampires or demons, just ordinary people who had hoped to rest in peace. Perhaps the real vampires of Highgate were Farrant and Manchester who fed off the media hype they created.
A modern tragedy
Burials are still carried out in the Cemetery, and one of the modern interments the tour visited was that of Alexander Litvinenko the Russian exile and spy buried in 2006. Litvinenko was poisoned using Polonium after taking tea with two of his Russian contacts, he died from the effects of the posion. I still remember the news footage showing him fighting for his life in his hospital bed. He is buried here because the Victorian vaults are lead lined and therefore radiation proof.
His story reminded me that everyone buried in Highgate, however long ago, was once a living breathing individual with their own personal story. And that one day, despite our iphones and our apps we will all be dust just like them.
My final thoughts on Highgate Cemetery are best summed up by one if its famous incumbents, Christina Rossetti the poet.
When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet:
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget.