Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/London cemeteries

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Hominem mortuum in urbe ne sepelito, neve urito” was one of those wise old laws inscribed by the Romans on their twelve tables, but which has been permitted to fall into abeyance for well nigh two thousand years. It was but the other day Englishmen were induced to decide in favour of Life as against Death, and to decree that henceforward the living and the dead should no longer jostle against each other in our great cities. The necessity for living men is Health,—for the dead Silence and Repose.

As one looks back upon the struggle which was so stoutly maintained, and for so long a time, in behalf of the Ghoul interest, it is difficult to repress a smile at the arguments and assertions which were then thought not unworthy of serious discussion. Parent-Duchatelet maintained with considerable fervour that the true Temple of Hygeia was a dissecting-room stuffed full of human remains in an advanced stage of decomposition. The unfavoured many who could not obtain admission to these more choice and desirable spots were not, however, without their resources. As long as there was a chantier d’équarrissage, or a dépôt de vidange forthcoming,—in other words, a receptacle for dead horses or night soil—afflicted humanity was not without its Madeira or Torquay. The emanations arising from decomposing animal or even vegetable remains constituted the grand specific. If an occasional sniff at these in an amateur way did not suffice to restore calmness to the fluttering pulse, or coolness to the hot temples and freshness to the parched mouth, a man had nothing to do but to turn undertaker’s man, or grave-digger, and it would go well with him. Was not the grave-digger in “Hamlet” a stouter, a more cheerful, a more aged man than the hypochondriac prince? The conclusion is obvious.

Of all this there is an end. Beyond an occasional fight before Committees of the Houses of Parliament about Clergy Dues, no vestiges of the old strife remain. We are at last content to remove the remains of those who were dearest to us in life from the hearts and centres of our great towns, and there to leave them far away from the hubbub and turmoil of our daily business. As far as they are concerned, we know well enough that turmoil and hubbub can disquiet them no more, but yet “he is not dead, but sleepeth” is part of the nation’s faith, and well is it that it should be so. Stamp this belief out, and the humanities, the affections, and the joys which make life a pleasant thing would quickly follow. It is impossible to disconnect the link which unites those poor mouldering relics of what once was dear to us from the short past and the long future of man’s life. Therefore let them not be committed to the earth in cities—after life’s fitful fever, let them sleep well.

The old Puritan objection against our burial service for the dead was, that “in burying the dead we killed the living,” although by this they did not mean to express more than their objection to the delays in cold damp burying-grounds. Just in the same way and for the same reason it was said that the Great Duke took with him many of his old companions in arms, because they were kept waiting in St. Paul’s for so many hours at his last Review. No doubt every year hundreds and hundreds of—especially old—persons are killed by their attendance at funerals, but what is this to the hecatombs which were annually offered up as victims to the shades as a consequence of the practice of intramural interments? A mere statement of the numbers annually committed to the earth within the metropolitan limits should be sufficient to suggest the nature and amount of the danger to which we were exposed. The subjoined extract is reprinted from the Report of the Committee which took evidence upon the subject of interment in towns in the year 1843. It seems scarcely needful to add, that the evil would have become far more intense in the course of the last eighteen years but for the interference of our Legislators. The population of London has Increased in the interval comprised within the limits of 1843-61, and the deaths have increased as well. Here, however, is an account of matters as they stood in 1843. “In the metropolis are spaces of ground which do not exceed 203 acres, closely surrounded by the abodes of the living, layer upon layer, each consisting of a population numerically equivalent to a large army of 20,000 adults, and nearly 30,000 youths and children are every year very imperfectly interred. Within the period of the existence of the present generation upwards of a million of dead must have been interred in those same spaces.” Had the practice been allowed to continue without a check, the question would soon have resolved itself into the very simple one of “Is London to be the city of the Living, or the city of the Dead?” In the long run the dead would surely have gained the upper hand. The living, unless they had recourse to expedients which would have been shocking to the common feelings of humanity, must in the end have given way before the grim antagonists who would poison the water and the air. The evil was a cumulative one, as the variation in the process of decomposition is from a few months to half a century—although it should be observed that the calculations of the Committee above referred to seem to imply that under reasonable conditions of soil, atmosphere, &c., a disturbance of the ground in which the dead are interred may with safety to the living be effected every tenth year. For well nigh ten years the field of death must be suffered to lie fallow—upon the tenth it may be sowed anew.

Still following the figures of the Committee, which may be easily corrected for the intermediate increase of population, it would appear that in 1858 the deaths registered in the metropolis were nearly 52,000. Let these be taken, says Mr. Chadwick, at 50,000 annually (they are now about 60,000), and London would require a space equal to that of St. James’s Park—say 48 acres—for its burial-ground. Again assume the burials to be renewable in decennial periods, and the space required would be equal to the areas of Hyde Park, of St. James’s Park, and of the Green Park taken together.

The question, then, is to find a Hyde Park, a St. James’ Park, and a Green Park at safe distances from the metropolis,—let us say, about 500 acres. We want something less than Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens taken together. The various cemetery companies profess to have solved this question, and to have supplied this want. Let us see how the matter stands.

Amongst the companies in existence, until a very recent period, the London Necropolis, or Woking Cemetery Company, appears to have borne away the palm. 2000 acres of land at Woking Common were purchased by the company, under an Act of Parliament, and of these they have inclosed and planted 400 acres for the purpose of a cemetery. It would be difficult to exaggerate the improvements which have been introduced into the system of burials in consequence of the operations of this company. Their practice has been to assign a separate grave for each interment, and the grave is not afterwards disturbed, except at the desire of surviving friends for the reception of other members of the family. The soil is a dry sand, and the graves and walks are ornamented with trees, plants, and flowers in a very beautiful way. There is a space allotted to members of the Church of England; another to Dissenters; another to Roman Catholics. The chief objection is the distance from town; but, on the other hand, it must be remembered that the journey is accomplished by the Funeral Trains, which start from the terminus at Westminster Bridge, in about three-quarters of an hour. Until the recent establishment of the Great London Northern Company at Colney Hatch, the Woking Cemetery Company stood facile princeps amongst its rivals.

Of the Kensall Green Cemetery little need be said, as it has served its turn, and been overtaken by the town. It is already thickly thronged with the dead, and the same reasons which led to the passing of the Acts of 1852-53, will cause the Legislature to refuse any extension of its limits. The same thing may be said of the Highgate Cemetery, where so many Londoners of mark have found their last resting-place. Kensall Green and Highgate then may be dismissed from our calculations as to the future.

With regard to the other suburban cemeteries, the official reports received do not appear to be favourable. Dr Sutherland, in his Report to the Secretary of State, 23rd January, 1855, says of the Victoria Park Company: “It is situated in Bethnal Green, near St. James’ Church. The company to which it belongs contracts with parishes, and they carry on their trade with the usual neglect of health and decency.” This cemetery is exempt from the operations of the Metropolis Burials Act. Mr. Holland, in his Report of 26th November, 1855, speaks in similar terms of the Victoria Park Cemetery.

Dr. Sutherland, under date as above, reports of the Abney Park Cemetery, for the information of the Secretary of State: “The surface is tolerably well kept, but underneath it is a mass of corruption in the used part.”

Of the companies named, it appears reasonable to conclude that the cemeteries at Woking and at Colney Hatch are the two which possess the highest claims upon our attention. The one is upon the south, the other on the northern side of the river. Of the Woking Cemetery we have already spoken: it is in connection with the South-Western Railway. The Colney Hatch Cemetery is situated on the Great Northern Line, a quarter of a mile beyond the station of that name—at a distance calculated by time of fifteen minutes from London. The London terminus is at King’s Cross, in Maiden Lane, close to the principal station of the Great Northern.

The arrangements for the separate reception of different parties of mourners are very complete, and are calculated for the benefit of the humblest mourners, as well as of those who could, under ordinary circumstances, have afforded to pay for the luxury of retirement and seclusion.

The Colney Hatch Company have endeavoured to grapple with the monstrous evil which arises—chiefly amongst the labouring classes—from the keeping of a corpse for an indefinite number of days in the single room inhabited by a family. That the great bulk of the labouring classes do inhabit single rooms, will appear from the following table, which records the result of inquiries made in the inner ward of St. George’s, Hanover Square, at the time the Committee upon Interments in Towns were pursuing their labours. There is, unfortunately, little reason to suppose that the state of things is improved to any considerable degree since that date.

Dwellings. || No. of Families.
Single room to each family || 929
Two rooms to ditto || 408
Three || 94
Four || 17
Five || 8
Six || 4
Seven || 1
Eight || 1
Not ascertained || 3

Beds. || No. of Families.
One bed to each family || 623
Two beds to ditto || 638
Three || 154
Four || 21
Five || 8
Six || 3
Seven || 1
Dwellings without a bed || 7
Not ascertained || 10

Now, what must be the inevitable result of keeping a corpse for a week and upwards in a single small room inhabited by a numerous family, and in which all the usual processes of life, as cooking, eating, sleeping, &c., are carried on? The experience of all men who are accustomed to visit the dwellings of the poor will abundantly confirm the terrible stories incorporated in the Report of the Committee as to the results of keeping a corpse above ground under such circumstances. The Colney Hatch Company have endeavoured to deal with this evil by making arrangements at their station in Maiden Lane by which a corpse immediately after death may be removed at a most trifling expense to a reception-room at Maiden Lane to which the friends of the deceased may have access continuously until such time as the remains are removed to their last resting-place. Here precautions are taken, and wiser precautions than could be taken in any private dwelling, to guard against the awful tragedy of a premature interment. In various towns of Germany—notably at Frankfort and at Munich—this system has been found to work well, and to be acceptable to the working classes. The danger, however, of premature interment is exceptional indeed—the real peril is to the living from cohabitation with the dead.

There is no such absolute reluctance, as supposed, amongst the humblest classes of society to part with the remains of their relations and friends. It is the want of money to defray the dues and charges of a funeral which leads in ninety-five per cent. of cases to delay in the burial. The average price of the funeral of an adult is 4l.—of children 30s. This sum must be gathered painfully together before the corpse is removed from the room in which it has been too long retained. Now, in the case of the very humblest and poorest person, the Colney Hatch Company undertakes to receive the body at their station at Maiden Lane, and to keep it there a sufficient time free of charge; to remove it thence to Colney Hatch for 6s., with the addition of a charge of 1s. 6d. a-head for the return-ticket of each mourner. The cost of the common interment, at the lowest rate, is 13s. 6d. Thus the mortal remains of the very humblest workman in London may be decently and reverently moved from the death-bed to the grave at a charge—exclusive of the conveyance of mourners—of 19s. 6d., and, at the same time, all danger of disease to the surviving relations and friends is avoided.

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Colney Hatch Cemetery. Railway Station, Maiden Lane.

The mortuary is one of the most striking features of the arrangements at the Maiden Lane Station, and well deserves a visit. A portion of the interior is represented in the sketch on next page. The shell or coffin, on arrival at the station, is placed upon a metal chair or plate, and slowly lowered down by an ingenious mechanical arrangement to the table of the mortuary, and then conveyed along rails to the particular spot assigned for its reception. The apartment is well ventilated and illuminated at night, whilst watchers are in attendance to take every needful precaution in cases of suspended animation, should any such occur.

These arrangements have the direct sanction of the Sanitary Commissioners. Should they be found in accordance with the feelings of the working classes, the rate of mortality in London may soon receive a notable diminution.

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Colney Hatch Cemetery. Mortuary, Maiden Lane.

In fifteen minutes the train—which leaves Maiden Lane—reaches its destination at Colney Hatch, and the tedious and unnecessary ceremony of a lugubrious procession through the streets, or upon the suburban roads, is avoided. At Colney Hatch one hundred and fifty acres of ground have been enclosed and laid out in walks and beds. The features of the surrounding country must be familiar to most Londoners, and it must be a satisfaction to those who, from time to time, may re-visit the graves of those whose remains they have committed to the earth, to find them deposited in such a place, instead of in a reeking and abominable London graveyard. The journey down is a mere nothing—it is, practically, as though the cemetery were at the King’s Cross Station of the Great Northern Railway. As at Woking, chapels have been erected for the use of Dissenters, and a church for members of the Church of England, in which the last ceremonies of religion may be conducted with dignity and propriety. The third of our little sketches will give an idea of the station with its two chapels—the church, whose spire, rising some 150 feet, is seen in the distance, is the one assigned to the use of the members of the Church of England. There is a tranquillity and repose about the whole scene which one could scarcely have supposed attainable at so short a distance from the great Babylon in which the pulsations of life are throbbing so madly through every street.

Colney Hatch Station 1861.png

Colney Hatch Station.

There is now most happily an end of the vulgar prejudice that there is something indecorous and unseemly in the system of entrusting the arrangement of funeral rites to public companies. Why should not an enormous saving be effected in the sum of 5,000,000l., which represents the annual expenditure of the population of England and Wales alone, upon funerals and graves, by entrusting the commercial management of the matter to public companies? The money wasted upon the very mockery and beadledom of grief, might, with far greater propriety, be devoted to the comfort of the living. In very truth nothing more horrible—nothing more disgusting to the true mourner could be conceived than the mourning-coach, and the weepers, and the long cloaks, and the black horses, and the sottish misery of the professional mutes, except it were the consciousness that, when all was done, the remains of some beloved parent or child were consigned to a mere dirty hole in a reeking London churchyard there to await—and at no distant period—insult and desecration?

One word more upon the subject of expense of funerals, as far as the middle classes of society are concerned. Whereas, under the old system of undertaker’s grief, the cost of a funeral varied from 100l. to 50l.; under the present arrangements the body of a deceased person may be committed to the grave for about 20l. with every circumstance of reverence and respect.

The practice of inhumation—when the grave is on the hill-side or in a meadow surrounded with trees and flowers—appears to be the one most in accordance with the feelings of the Christian world. In former days the opinion of the Pagans was different, and is quaintly set forth by old Sir Thomas Brown, in his “Treatise upon Urn Burial:” “Some being of the opinion of Thales that water was the original of all things, thought it most equal to submit unto the principle of putrefication, and conclude in a moist relentment;—others conceived it most natural to end in fire, as due unto the master-principle in the composition, according to the doctrine of Heraclitus; and therefore heaped up large piles more actively to waft them towards that Element, whereby they also declined a visible degeneration into worms, and left a lasting parcel of their composition.” Let this be as it may have been in former days, the Christian Englishman rather desires a quiet resting-place—under the pure sky, in some country spot—for those whom he has loved during life, and whom he hopes to rejoin hereafter.