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In 1843, the Scottish cemetery designer, John Claudius Loudon, explained that the purpose of a burial ground was to dispose of the dead ‘in such a manner as that their decomposition, and return to the earth from which they sprung, shall not prove injurious to the living.’ [1] A decade earlier, London cemeteries had reached critical mass. Death rates were rising within the city due to overcrowding and outbreaks of cholera, tuberculosis, diphtheria, smallpox and typhus. Burial grounds were bursting at the seams, causing one Reverend John Blackburn to remark:

I am sure the moral sensibilities of many delicate minds must sicken to witness the heaped soil, saturated and blackened with human remains and fragments of the dead… [2]

C1The rate at which burials were growing was mind-boggling. According to one report, many cemeteries around London were burying as many as 11,000 people per acre. To put this in perspective, most cemeteries today accommodate 750-1,000 burials per acre—a tiny fraction of what was acceptable in the past. [3]

Bodies were literally crammed on top of one another. Most graveyards contained open pits with rows and rows of coffins exposed to sight and smell. Pit burial was so common in London that two men asphyxiated on the methane and other gases emanating from decomposing bodies after falling twenty feet to the bottom of one such pit in the early 19th century. [4]

For those living nearby, the smell was unbearable, especially during the summer months. The houses on Clement’s Lane in the East End of London backed into the local churchyard, and ‘ran with stinking slime.’ The stench was so overpowering, that occupants kept their windows shut all year long. Even the children attending Sunday school could not escape these unpleasantries. They learned their lessons as insects buzzed around them, no doubt originating from inside the church’s crypt which was crammed with 12,000 decomposing bodies. Even after the chapel was closed in 1844, it continued to be used, this time for ‘Dances on the Dead’ (see illustration, below) until the bodies were eventually moved to West Norwood Cemetery a few years later. [5]

L0073464 Illustration of a dance hall above a cemetary area

With this in mind, it’s hardly shocking that people in the 19th century wanted to reform cemeteries. Londoners were up to their noses in blackened corpses and stinking slime. But for the Victorians, this wasn’t just about the aesthetics of living in a city bubbling over with rotting corpses. It was about public health.

During this period, people associated bad odours with disease. It’s easy to understand why. Poor areas where people were jammed together in cramped living quarters would have smelled horribly. It was the poor who would have been forced to live near graveyards and open burial pits. Not surprisingly, these areas were also hotbeds for disease. The English reformer, Edwin Chadwick, was particularly concerned with ‘putrid emanations’ from corpses, which he argued were ‘injurious to the health of the living’. [6] He believed that lead coffins were especially dangerous:

The retention of bodies in leaden coffins in vaults is objected to, as increasing the noxiousness of the gases, which sooner or later escape, and when in vaults beneath churches, create a miasma which is apt to escape through the floor, whenever the church is warmed. [7]

According to Chadwick, the Austrian Emperor had banned the use of coffins altogether for this very reason, insisting that ‘all people should be buried in sacks’ for sanitary purposes. The Turks also recognized the dangers of lead coffins, and made it mandatory that pine be used as an alternative as it ‘decays rapidly,’ thus allowing the corpse to return to the earth more naturally. [8]

Chadwick would not get his wish with respect to lead coffins. However, change did come about in the form of cemetery reform. In 1832, Parliament authorized the General Cemetery Company to build a large, park-like cemetery in Kensal Green, a suburb of London. Shortly afterwards, other ‘garden cemeteries’ sprung up outside the city centre: West Norwood (1837), Highgate (1839), Abney Park (1840), Brompton (1840), Nunhead (1840), and lastly, Tower Hamlets (1841). Collectively, these cemeteries are known today as the ‘Magnificent Seven’ (see slideshow below).

People continued to bury their dead within the city for two decades after the establishment of Kensal Green and the garden cemeteries. By 1852, burials within central London were finally outlawed, and the days of overcrowded graveyards died with their last occupants. In 1885, Britain’s first legal crematorium opened in Woking. It wasn’t until 1968, however, that cremations outnumbered burials. [9]

Today, nearly 73% of people who die in Britain are cremated.

1. John Claudius Loudon, On the Laying Out, Planting, and Managing of Cemeteries, and on the Improvement of Churchyards (1843), p. 1.
2. Edwin Chadwick, Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. A Supplementary Report on the results of a Special Inquiry into The Practice of Internment in Towns. (1843), p. 134.
3. Ibid, p. 135.
4. Ruth Richardson, Death, Dissection and the Destitute (1987), p. 60.
5. Sarah Wise, The Italian Boy: Murder and Grave-Robbery in 1830s London (2005), p. 52.
6.Chadwick, Report on the Sanitary Condition, p. 31.
7. Ibid, p. 135.
8. Ibid, p. 136.
9.  I am greatly indebted to Ruth Levitt and her article, ‘A Grave Dilemma,’ in BBC History (May 2014) for inspiration & information for this article.