I was reading Necropolis on the National Express,
counting the hours to Victoria and measuring success
by the bleeps of a phone. Asked
and found in a shopping mall, awkward until
our hands touched, in rain-sheen, still,
on buses and the hill. The public space
of the Tube lit up as if by fire or starlight;
furtive, beautiful kisses on a hot night.
A massive sheet of grass where glass faces
once stood, hiding in the bushes like adolescents,
frozen-armed and all-ablaze, lost in his scent;
Greenwich, TV, drunk with love, no privacy.
Museums, walks, bookstores, endless cups of tea.
Until it had to end, in hail, a rainbow—
where I would be, forgotten on the kerb:
this monster city, don’t disturb.
Idealization in the pain: it only goes to show.
This poem was written almost four years ago, and the sentiments of bitterness and regret over a lost relationship no longer hold true. Fortunately for me, the heartbreak in it turned to true love!
But enough about me. I’ve come back to this because I acquired the book Necropolis: London and Its Dead from work as a giveaway and have since picked up where I left off, never having finished the book in 2008. It happened that the book was quite topical, given that I visited Kensal Green Cemetery last weekend, with plans to see the other “big six” Victorian London cemeteries later in the summer.
What can I say? I like history, I like the macabre, and one reason I love living in London is that the history is thickly layered nearly everywhere. As I remarked, there is almost nowhere in the urban center that was not a cemetery or burial ground at some point, including the very area in which we live. It makes the London Walks on Halloween all the more fitting, yet somehow it comforts me, for if I haven’t been haunted yet, it seems unlikely that I will.
Visiting graveyards as a touristic proposal has some struck some as weird; I would think it unpleasant myself if they had remained the boneyards of the early 19th century. However, the classical London cemeteries we have today, if a little neglected, are nevertheless pleasant to stroll through in the same way Père Lachaise was designed to be a resting place for the dead and a green space for the living. While you are not confronted with visceral death in the same way that you are in the catacombs of Paris, walking through them is a somewhat sobering experience, especially when you start to realize the vastness of the ever-expanding Kensal Green.
London’s burial history in Necropolis begins with the “Celtic Golgotha” of the 70,000 Romans killed by Boudicca’s army in her spree of vengeance, buried around the Thames near Battersea. Then we speed forward to the 4th century C.E., to the Spitalfields Woman, whose coffin revealed “the skeleton of a young woman, perfectly preserved, lying on a pillow of bay leaves and wrapped in an elaborate robe of Chinese silk, decorated with gold thread from Syria.” And I have a personal connection to the Spitalfields Woman as well, as her coffin and reconstructed face, residing in the Museum of London, inspired me in 2007 to write,
It’s a stripping away:
of skin and flesh, sinew and artery, capillary,
nerve endings, knee cap and gland;
each a new way to keep you
from me. Soon there will be bone
and nothing left to string
it together, not a tender tendon,
not a ligament of promise or hope.
Only magic and insanity
to keep the skeleton functioning,
carving out a semblance
of a human being, like a chalk
figure carved on a cave wall.
By then there will be no lips
left to kiss, no fingernails,
no breasts, not even a heart
pumping blood. Only sheer force
of will. Only you
can bring back the bits,
mold me like an anatomist’s clay,
taking shape like the reconstructed
face of the prehistoric Spitalfields woman
in the museum.
(I fudged a little when I called her prehistoric!)
In the chapter called “Danse Macabre,” our attitudes toward death and burial are contrasted with those of the medieval Londoner, whose response to the Plague was best described in Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund; I feel I’m covering similar ground to that described of medieval France in Metrostop Paris: History from the City’s Heart. For the people of the Middle Ages, being buried close to or within the church building was the ultimate. “Builders demolishing the remains of the Blackfriars monastery after the Great Fire of London discovered four heads, in pewter pots, in a wall. The heads, which were embalmed, had tonsured hair.”
London survived another Plague, described in great detail by the likes of Daniel Defoe and Samuel Pepys, and the Great Fire of London, in the 17th century. By the 18th century, Catharine Arnold argues, attitudes toward death and funerals had changed, in part due to a rising middle class (it’s always the rise of the middle class). The craze for mausolea, “such as Vanbrugh’s for Castle Howard in Yorkshire, which made such a terrific impression on the gothic novelist Horace Walpole that he observed it ‘would tempt one to be buried alive!’”
After this, things definitely went downhill. No one seemed to want to make any burial fields outside of churches or, moreover, outside of London. Conditions grew appalling in the inner city. As reformer George Alfred Walker remarked, “The soil of this ground [Portugal Street] is saturated, absolutely saturated, with human putrescence . . . The living here breathe on all sides an atmosphere impregnated with the odor of the dead.” Yet people seemed reluctant to act. Arnold posits that the conditions of the living poor were so bad, the conditions of the dead were but an extension of their “miserable” lives. This makes sense up to a point, as much of the underhand dealing, personified in the Enon Chapel scandal, was kept hidden from the “great and good.” However, the whole phenomena just seems incredible from a modern perspective. Enon Chapel, by the way, was a space measuring 59 feet x 12, where around 12,000 bodies were crammed at 15 shillings a time. (All of this in direct contrast to the city’s Jewish cemeteries, which were by Judaic law kept to a certain size and then “remaining undisturbed.”) “One explanation as to why families had permitted their dearly beloved to be consigned to such a hell-hole was the lingering fear of body snatchers.” It took another epidemic, this time of cholera, whose effects were recently demonstrated to me during an exhibition at the Wellcome Centre, to shake people out of their complacency.
It’s now the 1830s, and Kensal Green, that first great pioneer, has been designed and is about to become the fashionable burial ground. Even today, its mixture of Gothic and Classical styles (as well as modern, which include blue and green glass from the 1960s, photo tombstones, and huge extravagances in black marble) is a quirky selling point. There are impressive mausolea; weirdly beautiful Gothic spires; towering Egyptian obelisks and tombs; yet Arnold seems to prefer Highgate. Most people do. From the creation of much healthier cemeteries, there seemed to give rise to the elaborate Victorian funeral and the Good Death, not helped by Queen Victoria’s excessive response to Albert’s death. A long battle was fought in England to allow the use of crematoria, though eventually people began to see how sensible this option could be; Arnold cites the example of the desecration by French revolutionaries to the Bourbon vaults as turning public opinion away from interment. The public response to Diana, Princess of Wales’ death is seen as a throwback to a Victorian desire for pageantry.
The final chapter focuses on the 20th century and how world wars have irrevocably changed our attitudes toward death and burial, particularly WWI and the invention of the Cenotaph and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Though we get saturated in the discussion of such things, I still found descriptions of ordinary Londoners’ courage during the Blitz to be quite inspiring.
Necropolis, with all its emphasis on the rotting physical body after death, is also a book about life. It describes how the living must live with death and somehow provide a sanitary and hygienic way to do so. Also, it is a celebration of a wide parade of people, from Radclyffe Hall to the Chevalier d’Eon, from the 5th Duke of Portland to visionary John Claudius Loudon, from Christina Davis to reforming writer Mrs Isabella Holmes, from Jeremy Bentham to Martin Van Butchell. Passing St Pancras often, it is interesting to note that it was once known as “Catholic Pancras” because it was a particularly popular burial ground for Roman Catholics. And so we come full circle, to where echoes of the past are always with us, whether we realize it or not.
 Interestingly, I wrote a poem fragment, “Winchester Cathedral,” after watching a program about the cathedral on TV. In the 19th century, excavations needed to be done in the submerged crypt, which had remained sealed since the 14th century, and real fears existed about catching Plague from the ancient contagion. This was published in Handshake 78.