If it’s built in London, chances are the building is over some sort of grizzly site. The Houses of Parliament are over a plague pit, while St. Paul’s Cathedral has a wealth of human remains beneath and a history of burning heretics on it’s grounds. Writer Catharine Arnold delves into the history of London and how death came to be woven into so much of culture in her book Necropolis: London and Its Dead.
One of the most fascinating sequences in the book focuses on Enon Chapel, a popular church and burial site during the Victorian era. A less than reputable pastor charged cheap fees for people to bury their dead in the area underneath the church. As the church aged, the floorboards began to warp and the stench of decay drifted upwards into the congregation above. People became ill during services and often believed it was divine intervention. A scandal broke out when it was discovered what the real nature of these experiences were.
The book also highlights the dangers of burial in close proximity to the living and the creation of such expansive cemeteries as Highgate Cemetery and Abney Park. Both remain today as reminders of the pomp and circumstance of the era. Necropolis includes the intricate practices and requirements for families in mourning. Most often, women found themselves obligated to spend to their last dimes to acquire the proper clothing and funeral rights for their husbands and children who had passed.
Necropolis: London and Its Dead is well researched and includes an extensive bibliography for readers wishing to look farther into the funeral culture of London’s past. The book is not for those with weak stomachs and often makes for grizzly reading. A fascinating read, I do not recommend delving into the section on Enon Chapel during dinner.