Victorian London - Death and Dying - Overcrowding

        Observing by the reports from the Commons House in this day's paper, that the above subject is likely to soon undergo discussion, allow me to suggest that there should be several burial grounds, all, as far as practicable, equi-distant from each other, and from what may be considered the centre of the metropolis; that they be  regularly laid out and planted with every sort of hardy trees and shrubs; and that in interring the ground be used on a plan similar to that adopted in the burial-ground of Munich, and not left to chance like Pere la Chaise. These and every other burial-ground in the country, might be made, at no expense whatever, botanic gardens; for, were nurserymen and gardeners invited, I am certain they would supply, everyone to his own parish, gratis, as many hardy trees and shrubs, and herbaceous plants, as room could be found for. It would be for the clergy and the vestries to be at the expense of rearing these trees if they choose, which I think they ought to do, if they get them for nothing.
    The burial places of the metropolis ought to be made sufficiently large to serve at the same time as breathing places, and most churchyards in the country are now too small for the increasing population. To accomplish the above and other metropolitan improvements properly, there ought to be a standing commission, for the purpose of taking into consideration whatever might be suggested for the general improvement, not only of London, but of the environs.

Bayswater, May 14, 1830

J.C.Loudon, letter to the Morning Advertiser, 1830

CHURCH-YARDS IN LONDON. - HORRIBLE DEATHS. - The state of the churchyards of the metropolis is at once disgusting and dangerous, and calls loudly for Legislative interference. To know that the population of London is exposed to the pestilent miasma of our burial grounds, situated as they are in the very midst of the most densely crowded neighbourhoods, is calculated to excite the most painful apprehensions for the public safety. A grave was opened in Aldgate churchyard on Friday, and immediately the pestilential exhalations destroyed the grave-digger, and also another man who went, after a considerable time, to his aid. Let any one read the following evidence before the Coroner's inquest, and say whether it is not the duty of all interested in preserving the metropolis from disease in its worst forms to interfere to stay the plague:- "Mr. Ed. Cheeper, the master of the workhouse, stated, that about 11 o'clock he heard the loud screams of a female in the churchyard, and he instantly hastened to the spot, and looking into a grave about 20 feet deep, at the north-side of the churchyard, he saw the deceased grave-digger, Oakes, lying on his back, apparently dead. A ladder was instantly procured, and the deceased young man Luddett, who with several others had by this time been attracted to the spot, instantly volunteered to descend to the assistance of Oakes. On his reaching the bottom o the grave witness called out to him to place the ropes under the arms of Oakes, and the instant he stooped down to raise the head of Oakes he appeared as if struck with a cannon-ball, and fell back with his head in a different direction to his fellow sufferer, and appeared instantly to expire. King, the former grave-digger, made two or three ineffectual attempts to descend, but so foul was the air that he was obliged to be drawn up again, and it was full 25 minutes or half an hour before the bodies were taken up by means of a hook attached to rope." Another witness stated that the grave was a pauper's grave, and added that "such graves as those were kept open until there were 17 or 18 bodies interred in them. It was not the custom to put any earth between the coffins in those graves, except in cases where the persons died of contagious diseases, and in that case some slacked lime and a thin layer of earth were put down to separate them. Sometimes the gravediggers would not go down a grave, owing to the foulness of the air; but were in the habit of burning straw, and using other means to dispel the impure air." Whether partiality for the place, arising from religious or family attachments, or regard for vested interests in those who have a property in the soil, tend to perpetuate the evil, it is obvious that the public health is the supreme law, and the legislature must interfere to preserve it. The Coroner's Jury, in this instance, returned a verdict of Accidental Death. 

Bell's Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 9 September 1838

see also Hector Gavin's Sanitary Ramblings - click here

see also the description in G.W.M. Reynold's The Mysteries of London - click here

In all those larger parochial burial-grounds where the maintenance of a - right to bury can be considered important—in all such, and in most others, too, the soil is saturated and super-saturated with animal matter undergoing slow decomposition. There are, indeed, few of the older burial-grounds in the City where the soil does not rise many feet above the original level, testifying to the large amount of animal matter which lies beneath the surface... For the most part, houses are seen to rise on all sides in immediate contiguity to the burial-ground, forbidding the possibility of even such ventilation as might diminish the evil; and the inhabitants of such houses complain bitterly, as they well may, of the inconvenience which they suffer from this confined and noxious atmosphere.
    With respect to burial in vaults, which prevails to a very great and dangerous extent in this City, I may observe that, among persons who are ill-informed on the subject, there exist erroneous notions as to the preservation of bodies under these circumstances. They are supposed, from the complete closure of their coffins, to remain unchanged for ages, like the embalmed bodies of Egypt and Peru; or at least—if perhaps they undergo some interior and invisible change (as the chrysalis within its sheath) that there is no interference with the general arrangement, no breach in the compactness of its envelope. Nothing can be less correct than this supposition.
    It is unnecessary that I should detail to you the process of decay, as it occurs within the charnel-house; nor need I inquire, for your informa­tion, whether indeed it be true, as alleged, that part of the duty of a sexton consists in tapping the recent coffins, so as to facilitate the escape of gases which otherwise would detonate from their confinement. It is sufficient to state, that—whether such be or be not the duty of the functionary in question, the time certainly comes, sooner or later, when every corpse buried in the vault of a church spreads the products of its decomposition through the air as freely as though no shell had encased it. It is matter of the utmost notoriety that, under all ordinary conditions of vault-sepulture, the wooden case of the coffin speedily decays and crumbles, while the interior leaden one, bending with the pressure of whatever may be above it (or often with its own weight), yields, bulges and bursts, as surely as would a paper hat-box under the weight of a laden portmanteau ...
    It is a very serious matter for consideration, that close beneath the feet of those who attend the services of their church, there often lies an almost solid pile of decomposing human remains, co-extensive with the area of the building, heaped as high as the vaulting will permit, and generally but very partially confined ...
    The atmosphere in which epidemic and infectious diseases most readily diffuse their poison and multiply their victims is one in which organic matters are undergoing decomposition. Whence these may be derived signifies little. Whether the matter passing into decay be an accumulation of soaking straw and cabbage leaves in some miserable cellar, or the garbage of a slaughter-house, or an overflowing cesspool, or dead dogs floated at high water into the mouth of a sewer, or stinking fish Thrown overboard in Billingsgate dock, or remains of human corpses undergoing their last chemical changes in consecrated earth, the previous history of the decomposed material is of no moment whatever. The pathologist knows no difference of operation between one decaying substance and another; so soon as he recognizes organic matter under­going decomposition, so soon he recognizes the most fertile soil for the increase of epidemic diseases; and I may state with certainty, that there are many churchyards in the City of London where every spadeful of soil turned up in burial sensibly adds to the amount of animal decomposition which advances too often inevitably around us.
    Nor can I refrain from adding, as a matter claiming attention, that, in the performance of intramural interment, there constantly occur disgusting incidents dependent on overcrowdedness of the burial ground; incidents which convert the extremest solemnity of religion into an occasion for sickness or horror; perhaps mingling with the ritual of the Church some clamour of grave-diggers who have miscalculated their space; perhaps diffusing among the mourners some nauseous evidence and conviction, that a prior tenant of the tomb has been prematurely displaced, or that the spade has impatiently anticipated the slower dismembering of decay. Cases of this nature are fresh in the memory of the public; cases of extreme nuisance and brutal desecration in place of decent and solemn interment; and it is unnecessary that I should revive the record of transactions inconsistent with even the dawn of civilization.
    From the circumstances which I have mentioned, it can hardly fail to appear most desirable to you, that the use of some spacious and open cemetery at a distance from the City should be substituted for the present system of interment, and the urgency of this requirement will be demonstrated all the more cogently, when it is remembered that the annual amount of mortality in the City averages about 3,000, and that under the present arrangements every dead body buried within our walls receives its accommodation at the expense of the living, and to their great detriment.

Dr John Simon, City Medical Reports, 1849


"Mr. Punch,
"I AM, and have been, for five-and-forty years, Vestry Clerk of the ancient church of St. Sage-cum-Marjoram, an edifice that, handed down to us by the Normans,-(the Conqueror having laid the first stone, and rented a family vault hitherto unoccupied) - does honour to the City of London. As Vestry Clerk, you must permit me to raise my voice - (which I could wish a brazen trumpet for the occasion) - against the unhallowed war at present waged against the vested interests of the dead asleep in church vaults, and in the vault of St. Sage-cum-Marjoram in particular. - Under the unprincipled plea of public health, the unbeliever desires to aim a blow at the decencies of the dead; and further, it is my opinion - and not only mine, but that of our beadle, a humble, but a very far-seeing individual - to introduce pagan and heathenish rites to the contempt of Christian burial.
    "The present cry is - Come and be buried in the country. The churchyards are foul· the church vaults fouler; come and take your long rest with hawthorns smelling about you, and skylarks singing above you. All very fine - but I (and the beadle) see what it will end in. A few years, and there'll be no burying at all-none. And this I would wish the undertakers to ponder upon, that they may rally round the church and her yards, and vaults, and other institutions. A few years, and there'll be revolutionists to propose what I've already heard called the good old Roman way; namely, to make a bonfire of the dead, putting out the flame with wine, and gathering up the ashes to be put into an urn for household furniture. I've heard of a phoenix, - though I never saw one - that a burnt with cinnamon, and mace, and nutmegs, and other spices. In this fashion, it will be proposed to get rid of them who die well-to-do, consuming the poor with nothing better than tar and turpentine. We now see advertised 'four fires for a penny' in the shape of circles of wood. Give up our London vaults and churchyards, and in like manner and in time we shall see - 'Four funerals for five-and-sixpence.' Urns will put out coffins.
    "But, Mr. Punch, what I particularly want to stand upon is this; the sweetness - I may say the more than sweetness of the church vaults (so shamefully attacked) of St. Sage-cum-Marjoram. Nothing can be sweeter! What's the words?- 
        'Only the action, of the Just
        Smell sweet and blossom in the dust'
Which is the case with our vaults. A flower-garden in June is nothing to 'em. And for this reason. Only the most respectable people of the parish have been buried there - and will continue to be. Look at our clergyman - look at his clerk - look at our beadle - look at all the congregation. Pictures of health! And all along of the sweet and odoriferous vaults of St. Sage-cum-Marjoram. And so - I've no manner of doubt of it - so it is with every other church; for which reason, I write this letter, calling upon all churchwardens and all beadles, to rally round their tomb-stones, to raise the black flag with the death's head on it in their churchyards, and one and all to cry- 'War to the Death and no Surrender.'
    "Give up your churchyards, and in ten years, at least, there'll be no decent lying for anybody: no, nothing but what the heathen call, funeral piles. However, I have eased my conscience, and am,
    "Your Obedient Reader, and

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1849


    Mr. Walker, speaking of the St. Giles' Churchyard in London says, "in less than 2 acres it contains 48,000 bodies." A London churchyard is very like a London omnibus. It can be made to carry any number. If there is no room inside - no matter, there is always plenty of accommodation outside. The same with a London churchyard - number is the last consideration.
    There are three things, in fact, which are never by any accident full. These are: The Pit of a Theatre, an Omnibus, and a London Churchyard. The latter combines the expansiveness of the two former, with the voluminousness of the Carpet Bag.

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1849