Review: Necropolis, London and Its Dead

Necropolis: London and Its Dead - Catharine Arnold

Since this deals with two of my favorite subjects (London and cemeteries) this is going to go on (and on and on) a bit. It falls into three parts

1) what I think about the book and its subject (with some random family stories of mine tossed in),

2) quotes to give you an idea of the sorts of history and writing (example: a really random verse of Three Little Kittens about their death!!!), and

3) links to other books, essays, and art that I found online thanks to the book making me interested enough to google. And then part

4) (because of course I added another section since I tried to limit myself to just three) the table of contents because for some reason I feel like being particularly through.

Necropolis is the story of burial in London from the time prior to the Roman occupation to modern era, and that long span of history is one of the reasons I love this sort of book, and the city itself. If you live in America you come to realize, sooner or later, that you live in a very young country, and that the history of our cities isn't anything like those in Europe. The very concept of excavating in central London and being able to pass through all those centuries as you dig further down has never ceased to amaze me.


About the whole topic of death in this book - it's handled with historical anecdotes about typical burials and related customs, and deals with events that caused mass fatalities and the problems relating to that, as well as references to modern findings via archeological digs. It's not at all what I'd call gory (but then I've read a book on the process of decomposition where it discussed at what stage the eyeballs would liquify - and that's how I now set my scale of More Than I Need To Know/Squeamish Alert. Because, yeek, I had never thought of that til now, thanks Vampires, Burial and Death.)


[Look out, sudden off tangent! But then this is one of those "I was thinking about this lately and the book reminded me" moments. And then I remembered " oh right, not everyone knows this stuff, I should probably describe the viewing bit."]


While the Victorians did get wildly carried away with the trappings of death - to the point that you could be forced to go into debt to follow certain expensive customs deemed Proper Burial/Mourning - I do think today we shy away from death a bit too much. When I say that I'm thinking of my own family traditions. My relatives still go for the Southern (United States) "viewing the body" in a funeral home - somewhat like the wake**, with the dead person in an open coffin, people come to see him/her one last time, and the family hangs around to talk with them and share memories. (No, you don't have to touch or kiss the body. I'm sure some people still do, but everyone has their own limits of comfort. I myself don't do either.) Some people I've told this to have recoiled - which, if you consider how many vampires and zombies run about in popular media now (and everyone's quite ok with that mental concept), it seems odd that sitting around with an actual corpse of someone you knew before the burial would cause people to freak out. (Note that I'm not pretending that in this day and age "the viewing" is typical.) In some ways it's just as strange that with some deaths people don't have any public observations of grief at all - no ceremony, no tomb, no stone, nothing (which happened in my family circle recently, which is probably why I'm writing this bit). If there was no more meaning to these rituals than just empty show, I could understand why people would skip them. But grief needs an outlet, and one of those is having traditions that cause you to gather together, or at least to share with others your memories of the person. There's a lot that goes on in such traditions that's never just symbolism. And when I've attended those family funerals I realized it was important for grieving friends to be able to pass on stories about my relatives that I'd never known - and that I would never have heard, without that traditional gathering.


Many of us, though moving far away from family plots or just through lack of tradition, never visit a cemetery. I certainly wouldn't force it upon anyone (any more than I'd force a viewing tradition), but I think it seems almost like hiding from death, or attempting to. But then I've had relatives die, and I had one of those "you could have died here" events myself, and that does tend to color your own feelings. It's probably why I've really enjoyed the southwestern Day of the Dead traditions of remembrance that I started annually attending in October/November.


Anyway (going back to the book!), rather than say more about what I think of the book, I'll just give you the usual quotes that made me stop and say "now that's interesting." Which, as usual, probably tells you more about me (and what I want to remember) than the book, but at least gives you a sample of the author's writing.


I wouldn't call this a definitive historical work - but it's got lots of citations and a clear list of sources, which is always a great starting point. Just as important, it's history but also an enjoyable read. Er, if you're into this area of cultural history that is. I'm definitely putting it down as Would Read Again (highest praise from me).



** Footnote time! So there is a family story of a great great - sigh, ok uncle or cousin (I have an awful time keeping straight how I'm related to people past first cousin-dom) - let's say uncle, who had died and the family had him laid out at home (because this was pre-funeral home viewing), and family was gathered at the house. Some of the men were to sit up all night (tradition) with the corpse, and apparently one of the brothers was a well known joker, because this kind of obnoxiousness runs in the family. (The men seem to get a higher dose, for some reason.) Anyway, the brother somehow was able to prop the dead man up in his coffin, and put in the dead man's hand a baked potato with a bite taken out of it. And the body was left that way for the first in the house to walk in and find in the morning. Ha ha ha, the dead man sat up and ate a potato. (I'm betting the family wasn't much amused either.)


I would not be surprised if this story was cribbed from similar folk tales floating around in the region (even though there's the name of a specific family member tied to it). But at the same time, it was also the norm to have births and deaths take place in your home in that era - not in hospitals or funeral homes. (And there's one of the the reasons why they were called funeral homes - it was meant as a substitute.) And when someone died at home, the wake or viewing would take place there too, and family and friends would gather there for it. Either the women of the family would clean and dress the corpse or someone local who regularly helped with such matters would be asked to come and take care of it.


Anyway, pass along if you've heard this "corpse was eating a potato" story. I can always use the info as an excuse to send the family genealogists on searches of old newspapers to try and verify family legends.


[All the rest under the pagebreak. You were warned of the length, all ye who pass onward!]





Quotes That I Enjoyed/Made Me Think


 p 9 - funeral in Roman London:

"...The funeral procession observed strict hierarchy , with the heir at the forefront, dressed in a black toga, the folds of which he held before his face, his hair deliberately disheveled to signify bereavement. The wearing of black was significant, as black garments were thought to confer invisibility upon the bereaved, protecting them from vengeful spirits.

...Musicians and torchbearers came next, with the rear taken up by the mimes - sinister, silent figures in wax masks modelled on dead members of the family.

...the procession made its way out of the city walls to the cemetery where, after burial, a funeral feast took place at the graveside, with libations poured to appease the spirit of the dear departed."

 p 75, late 1600s:

"Grave clothes were part of a young woman's trousseau. These grim garments were sewn in the knowledge that they might be needed. For the same reason, a potential bride habitually prepared at least one set of burial clothes for any child she might bear. Babies dying within a month of baptism were buried in their baptismal robes and swaddling bands."


p 172:

"...Some graveyards were sacrificed for new streets or even railways, leading to the popular novelist Captain Marryat's observation that, 'The sleepers of the railway are laid over sleepers in death,' and inspiring the music hall song 'They're Moving Grandpa's Grave to Build a Sewer.'

Inevitably, the final remains of many Londoners went into the latest foundations of their great city."


p 173 - the Dickens quote is found in this book at Gutenberg, in Chapter 23 (I really like the metal/bark comparison):

"...At Gibraltar Walk burial ground, Bethnal Green Road, small slices of land were cut off and doled out as yards for the surrounding houses, while the burial ground itself became a neglected jungle, forming a private garden for the big house which opened on it, where the owner of the ground lived.


Charles Dickens relished the gothic appeal of these neglected burial grounds. In 'The City of Absent' which appears in The Uncommercial Traveller, he tells us that:


"Such strange churchyards hide in the City of London; churchyards sometimes so entirely detached from churches, always so pressed upon by houses; so small, so rank, so silent, so forgotten, except by the few people who ever look down into them from their smoky windows.  As I stand peeping in through the iron gates and rails, I can peel the rusty metal off, like bark from an old tree.  The illegible tombstones are all lop-sided, the grave-mounds lost their shape in the rains of a hundred years ago, the Lombardy Poplar or Plane-Tree that was once a drysalter’s daughter and several common-councilmen, has withered like those worthies, and its departed leaves are dust beneath it.  Contagion of slow ruin overhangs the place." "


p. 181 :

"...By the 1880s, Victorian mourning showed manufacturers exploiting the commercial possibilities of an inevitable event, in a culture where death was just another excuse for merchandising and black crepe made the fortune of Courtaulds."

p. 183 - I think the Dent referred to here is publisher Joseph Dent. The cite for this example is John Morley's Death, Heaven and the Victorians, 1971.

"...It was an age of high infant mortality. Even picture books prepared children for the melancholy realities. One by Dent featured the tale of the 'Three Little Kittens':

In the morn, full of pride - in the evening they died;
How sudden and shocking their fate!
The three little kittens, who still wore their mittens,
Were buried next morning in state!

The rhyme is illustrated by a tabby cat on a rooftop, witnessing the cortege winding off into the sunset, followed by a procession of weeping felines, all in deep mourning."

p 194:

"...Even the day upon which one was buried was an indicator of status. Saturday was traditionally the 'aristocratic' day for funerals. And although London's Victorian cemeteries are haunts of ancient peace at present, in the mid-nineteenth century they were far from tranquil. Highgate alone saw over thirty funerals a day. Horseshoes clattered across the cobbles; sextons grunted with effort as they sank graves up to twenty feet deep in six foot-by-two foot shafts, without shoring, in imminent danger of suffocation; hammers rang on bronze as workmen set yet another pair of elegant bronze or copper doors into a newly-built mausoleum. Tennyson himself wrote to Highgate Cemetery to complain bitterly about the noise levels during his brother's funeral.

To be buried on a Sunday, the Christian day of rest, was regarded as vulgar, although it was the only option for poor families, who would be working for the remainder of the week. During a busy period, Sundays would see up to seventy funerals at London's biggest cemeteries, with teams of twenty gravediggers starting work at six o'clock in the morning."


p 196 (someday I really must figure out how to insert the pound symbol):

"...The black funeral horses, snorting and stamping, with the 'sable plumes of death' nodding as they tossed their heads, form one of the most iconic images of the Victorian funeral. Whatever the social status of the deceased, plumes were de rigeur. Even a [poundnote] 4.14s funeral insured you fifteen black ostrich feathers."


p 208:

"...she [a Victorian widow] might wear an item of mourning jewellery such as a brooch or locket containing a tress of a loved one's hair, worked into the design of a willow tree, or encased in glass and engraved with the motto In Memoriam. A sentimental attachment to locks of hair dates back to the ancient Greeks, who always cut the first hair of a child, the beard of a youth, and the hair of a young maiden, and offered it to the gods."


p 210, a quote from Puckle, Funeral Customs (link to book in next section), about a servant girl whose husband dies and because the full widow's outfit is extremely expensive, she buys simple cheap black dress and hat, but


"...Her former employer, who had much commended this modest outlay, met the girl a few days later swathed in crape, her poor little face only half visible under a hideous widow's bonnet complete with streamers and a veil. Asked why she had made these purchases she explained that her neighbors and relations had made her life unbearable because she did not want to wear widows weeds, and at last she had to give in. 'They said that if I would not wear a bonnet, it proved we were never married,' she sobbed."


Puckle was a savage critic of mourning culture, but understood its oppressive nature, particularly among the poor. Among the wealthy, societal pressure was just as great."


p 211:

"Just as an entire industry exists today around weddings and childbirth, with clothing and accessories for every contingency, high Victorian mourning demonstrated the ability of the Victorians to exploit an inevitable event. Victorian manufacturers seized upon the commercial possibilities of mourning with characteristic enterprise. There were no less than four mourning emporia in Regent Street..."

"...a department store of death..."


p 217-218:

"The Victorians were half in love with death. Even Fallen Women, who did not meet a Good Death, seemed to undergo some form of redemption by drowning. Paintings such as Found Drowned, depicting the corpse of a prostitute, were regarded as salutary; the vogue was inspired by Thomas Hood's poem 'The Bridge of Sighs,' which idealizes a drowned woman...


...In France and Germany, reproductions of the death mask of a beautiful woman found drowned in the Seine became a popular feature of French and German parlours. This, of course, was the romantic ideal: the reality consisted of the Dredgermen, who made their living dragging decomposed corpses out of the Thames and looting the bodies."


p 221 - I couldn't track down specific images of the Maple's bed that looked very bedlike - I'd have thought it was more table-like. I think this is the Tom Sayers mentioned, and you can see the dog statue in this CNN article. Ducrow Tomb photos found on this blog post. (You can now imagine how much time I can spend looking for photos of graves! Not that I bothered to save all the links I looked at.)

"Monuments such as the four poster bed of the Maple family and Tom Sayer's dog Lion at Highgate, and the extraordinary Ducrow Tomb at Kensel Green, contribute to the eclectic appearance of London's Victorian cemeteries, revelaing a unique sense of the national character which has sadly been lost today. However many nineteenth-century comentators were outraged by the flights of fancy to be found in the new cemeteries, considering them to be irreligious."


[If you've made it down this far - firstly, I am impressed - and secondly, after that long chunk of quotes, now you can understand why I was dithering over unreadable blockquotes in themes in this post from yesterday.]




Thanks to this Book: More Information I Unearthed (yes, that was terrible) Online


The cited 1896 book by Mrs. Isabella Holmes is on Google books in ebook form:

The London burial grounds: notes on their history from the earliest times to the present day


Blog post about Mrs Holmes:

London graveyards and the Wonderful Mrs Basil Holmes,
website: A Parcel of Ribbons, August 4th, 2012
"...Early on in her work Bella realised that there was no substitute for seeing things on the ground, and off she went notebook in hand searching for burial grounds that she knew should still be there, but which now were often back yards filled with rubbish. Often access was difficult, but a letter of introduction got her into a Jewish cemetery from which her Christian status would otherwise have excluded her. And she was not above climbing fences to peer beyond – ‘One day I climbed a high rickety fence in a builder’s yard in Wandsworth in order to see over the wall into the Friends’ burial-ground. No doubt the men in the place thought me mad, – anyhow they left me in peace.’

She would knock on doors and ask to look out of people’s rear windows to locate old graveyards. Moreover, intrepid but careful, she was quite happy to venture into parts of London she was told were unsafe. ‘An appearance of utter insignificance and an air of knowing where you are going and what you want, is the passport for all parts of London’. One feels she would have made a good spy!"


Cited 1674 stoneware portrait by John Dwight of his 6 year old daughter, both links from Victoria and Albert Museum website:

Lydia Dwight Dead; Figure of Lydia Dwight, half-length recumbent


Lydia Dwight Resurrected


Here I'll add a thank you to the V&A Museum website for sucking me in for an afternoon of viewing Victorian mourning jewelry, such as:


Slide, worn as bracelet or necklace, description: "Enamelled and inscribed gold with hair and rock crystal"


Ring, "This ring, which closely resembles contemporary mourning rings, is inscribed in French around the bezel, 'I cherish even her shadow' "


Locket, "Engraved gold, ivory painted in watercolour with a miniature embellished with hair and pearls"

Everything on the V&A website categorized as "mourning" - lots of brooches and lockets. This is how I lost many an hour.


After reading the brief biographies in Necropolis (p 90), I need to read more on:


John Claudius Loudon - architect/designer


Jane Loudon - author, wrote a scifi novel in 1827 called The Mummy! (yes, with the ! and all), which you can find here on


Reference to haunted house led me (in a roundabout kind of way) to:


50 Berkeley Square


Haunted houses: tales of the supernatural, with some account of hereditary curses and family legends, by Charles G. Harper (read online or download ebook at the link over the title, leads to


The Haunted and the Haunters; Or, The House and the Brain by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (title link leads to Gutenberg page for the book)


Text referred to on page 192 can be found online (read online only, no download):


Funeral Customs by Bertram S. Puckle [1926]




Contents:   (my asides are in parentheses below)


Map (Title: London in the 1880s, drawing of the central area showing the location of the cemeteries)



1) A Pagan Place: Celtic Golgotha and the Roman Cemeteries

2) Danse Macabre: London and the Black Death (title reference: allegory)

3) Memento Mori: The Theatre of Death (title reference: Latin phrase)

4) Pestilence: Diary of a Plague Year (Daniel Defoe book reference!)

5) Et in Arcadia Ego: A Vision of the Elysian Fields (title references: Latin phrase, Elysian)

6) Gatherings from Graveyards: The Dead are Killing the Living

7) Victorian Valhallas: The Development of London's Cemeteries

8) Great Gardens of Sleep: Death Moves to the Suburbs

9) The People Who Invented Death: The Victorian Funeral

10) The Vale of Tears: The Victorian Cult of Mourning

11) Up in Smoke: The Development of Cremation

12) Our Darkest Hours: World War and the Decline of Mourning