Victorian London - Death and Dying - Cemeteries - 'London Cemeteries and the Epidemic in 1849'


[-269-] CHAPTER XX.


THAT it was customary in ancient times to bury the dead outside the city-walls the holy Bible bears witness, even as far back as in the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, where it is recorded bow Abraham bought the field of Macphelah of Ephron the Hittite, "and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, (and) that were in all the borders round about." (Chap. xxiii.) Here we find a rural cemetery in a green field bordered with trees, in which the venerable patriarch buried his wife nearly four thousand years ago, while we, with all our boasted improvements, are in the present day thrusting the dead together in countless thousands, in the very heart of our close and over-crowded cities - where the living have scarcely room enough to breathe, and the dead of to-day are crammed amongst the remains which have been disinterred to give them a short lodgment; when they again in turn are cast out, and mysteriously consumed or pounded into the smallest possible compass under our very eyes, in so unfeeling, heartless, and brutal a manner, that we dare not shock our readers with the revolting details.
    The head-stone, reared by the hand of pious affection, instead of pointing to the remains it was erected to commemorate, stands over the graves of strangers, and we shed our tears over those whom we never knew; while the sexton and the grave-digger grin at us behind the neighbouring tomb-stones, chinking the silver in their pockets, and laughing to think that the paupers whom they shoved into "our" grave on the previous night in a "huggermugger" way should be wept over by the broken-hearted mourner whom they have thus cheated. With these facts dinned into our ears every day by the [-270-] uplifted voice of the press, are we not guilty of disrespect towards the dead by burying them in these ever-changing and common lodging-houses 1 We know not where their remains are to be found at the end of the year; cannot tell whether they have been removed to lay the foundation of a new road, or sold and ground up to manure some distant field.
    Let us not forget that when the heathen Greeks and Romans brought the remains of their heroes and poets into their ancient temples, the bodies were first burnt, and only the ashes preserved in richly sculptured urns, on which the achievements of the dead were pictured: their classical minds fashioned "a thing of beauty out of the ashes of the departed; they gave to the dead a beautiful dwelling-place, and those who were buried unscathed by the funeral fire were interred in cemeteries where trees were planted over them, and marble monuments erected; and, idolators though they were, such places were held sacred, and were called "the silent cities of the dead," and were ever remote from the abodes of the living.
    I have before remarked, in my Pictures of Country Life, that, amid the din and tumult of a populous city, the dead are sadly misplaced. I never look upon those close unhealthy corners, crowded with graves, without feeling that it is wrong to bury the dead there; that they ought to be removed from such shadowy and sunless spots to where the tall trees would make a soothing murmur above their heads, and all around them be "gentle images of rest." Their business with this world is ended ; they have finished their long day's work; the roll of carriages, the tramp of busy passengers, and living voices, clamorous for gain, ever in my ear sound harshly when they come grating and jarring amongst the resting-places of the dead. The price of corn, the state of the money- market, or the rising and falling of the funds, are matters which ought to be discussed far away from those we followed, and wept over, and consigned to their silent chambers, there to sleep till the last trumpet sounds.
    In the open Cemetery, we seem to walk through a land lettered with living affections, and strewn over with tokens of existing love. Our sympathies are divided between the mourned and the mourners; our sorrow is not alone for the dead; the flowers at our feet remind us that there are those behind us somewhere who come here now and then to weep. If we picture Grief standing there with bowed head, and hair unbound, "refusing to be comforted," Pity seems to kneel before us at the same time; and, while she looks up timidly into the pale face of Grief, appears as if entreating of her to remember the mourners, who only survive to weep; while Memory, with downcast [-273-] eyes and folded arms, seems musing over the flowers which Affection has planted on their graves. In a dimly-lighted, breathless City churchyard, such images are not seed: our affections are there fettered-the imagination is chained down, and endeavours in vain to soar heavenward, if we call up the dead, they seem to sit weeping with bent head and folded wings among the dark shadows of the mouldering monuments on which the sunlight seldom falls.
    Against these unhealthy graveyards sentence has been pronounced: they are doomed to be closed. It is useless for selfish and mercenary men to oppose the fiat which has gone forth, for the air of this mighty city has too long been poisoned through men who live by the dead. Let us create a good out of this evil; and after these unhealthy churchyards have been closed long enough to destroy the injurious exhalations which have of late numbered so many of the living with the dead, then let the grounds be planted with trees and flowers, and they will become sweet breathing-places, like our squares, and amid the brick walls call up images of the far-away country. The old monuments need not be disturbed. To see the drooping branches of a green tree falling over them, will add to their beauty and solemnity; and in the centre of our cities we can wander among groves rendered sacred by the remains of our forefathers,-can in the dim twilight-shadows which the flickering leaves will ever make, hold communion with the spirit of John Bunyan, while we peruse his immortal work in the burying-ground of Bunhill-fields; for by such association would these spots become hallowed. Nor would the records of the dead, who sleep without the walk of the church, be held less sacred, if their names were engraven on marble tablets, and placed within the consecrated buildings around which their dust would repose, beneath beds of blowing flowers and close-leaved evergreens.
    The old grey weather-beaten tombs of the founders of charities would look more venerable overtopped by the tall elm, the sable yew, or the weeping willow, that seems ever to droop sadly above the dead. No busy builder should ever be permitted to rear a wall within these sacred enclosures, or disturb the robin that would pipe his sweet anthem in autumn, or drive away the belted bee, that would come over'the high houses from some distant meadow, to make a plaintive murmur in the heart of this vast city as he flew in and out among the flowers that waved above these old households of the dead.
    Let us not sow these places with salt, nor strew them with lime, to destroy every trace of what they really are - spots sanctified by tears and prayers, and the bodies of our brother men; but, if necessity demands it, remove some of their remains tenderly to other places of [-274-] sepulture, and make gardens over the graves of those who are left undisturbed-spots above which the blue sky might be seen, while the sunshine slept below; amid which we could obtain glimpses of the face of heaven, while musing over the memory of those who have long since entered the gates of the "golden city." Let not these old burial-grounds be closed with no more reverence than if we were shutting up a common sewer; let us not speak of them as loathsome, disgusting, and revolting, because they are made so by unfeeling, money-loving men-gnomes, who feed and fatten on the dead-who look on coffins as they do on cabbages-digging, planting, cutting down, and re-setting the ground, and only studying how to make more money; but let us remember that the mute and inoffensive dead contribute not unto the evils complained of until they are dislodged with brutal violence - that they cannot defend themselves, for 
        "They are very mild and meek;
        Though (sextons) smite them on the cheek
        And on the mouth-they cannot speak."
The inhuman vultures who prey on them injure the living, and only insult the dead through our sensitiveness. To the dead it matters not:
        "They hear not (Poor-law guardians) rave,
        Nor moaning household shelter crave
        (When carted from each thrice-sold grave)."
    When our old churches were first built, they stood in wide, open, breezy spaces, at the remote ends of parish boundaries: such was Bartholomew Church, when Smithfield was really a field, and the lofty elm-trees towered high above the ancient gallows which was erected there. We have hemmed in the spots with streets and tall warehouses which our forefathers left free and open between the living and the dead, until they have become so close and breathless, that even the sparrows forsake their "old ancestral eaves, and seek for other roosting-places.
    Open cheap cemeteries, and conveyances thither, will spring up rapidly enough; funeral omnibuses will be started at little more than the present fares. If nothing else will do, let us be rated for burying our dead: we do not murmur at supporting them while living, nor should we begrudge the slight tax that would be required for interring them in Suburban Cemeteries. There are thousands of acres of land to be sold within five miles of the City of London; if we go to the distance often miles it will be all the better for our children's children; but let no buildings be erected within a measured mile of [-275-] these Silent Cities of the Dead, but each for ever remain a Great Garden of Graves.
    Affection would often visit this Land of the Dead; the widow would take her children by the hand, and lead them into the country, to shew them the little freehold in which their father slept. The poor would become more pious, and amid their troubles thank God that they had at last a tranquil haven, in which they could for ever moor their storm-tossed barques: to them suburban cemeteries would become spots filled with solemn associations-homes to which they were fast hastening with patient resignation.
    To us there is no feeling of loneliness while wandering through a beautiful cemetery. The dead seem to belong to us; they are of our company; they have but taken their berths in the great ship, and are sleeping until we come to join them, to be fellow-voyagers with them into the unknown sea of eternity - trusting ourselves to the care of the same Almighty Captain whose "ministering angels" fill the sails. Around the cemetery we see the wide unwalled country, where we have so often walked and talked with those who now "sleep their long sleep," and, while gazing over the landscape, they seem to accompany us, and to live again in our thoughts; or we stand, as it were, in a great picture-gallery, surrounded with portraits of the dead: not a single object rises up to shock our feelings ;-the open country beyond-the trees around-the flowers that cover the graves by which we stand-cause us to contemplate death kindly, and, instead of becoming hideous, he is but a gentle porter, who sits patiently without the gates of heaven, and welcomes all who are prepared to enter.
    To plant a grave with such flowers as "the poor inhabitant below" loved whilst living, is a pious pleasure: it is a living link between us and the dead, and keeps alive an affection which belongs riot to the world; though a "poor thing, it is our own;" for we know that the flowers are kejt alive by an invisible hand, that in the still dark night they continue to grow, while we are wrapt in as sound a slumber as that which falls upon the dead - the only difference being that we perchance may again awaken. There is no such link between us and them in a cold, grey, hard, dead tombstone: the tears which fall upon the flowers are not lost, for we know not but that the perfume may be wafted to heaven.
    We believe that the dead will again arise-that in some other state we shall again meet with them; and yet there are those who make their remains a source of profit. Perchance, the Angel of Death holds his court beyond the grave, and they may be summoned before him to account for their deeds. We, in our boyish days, were taught [-276-] to take off our hats when we entered a churchyard, and to walk amongst the dead as reverentially as we did up the aisle of the church-to look upon the grave as the gate which opened into heaven, as the only road which leads to the realms of eternal happiness.
    I have, in the work formerly alluded to, endeavoured to paint an ancient funeral procession, from the pages of holy writ, and to show how great was the respect paid to the dead in the patriarchal ages. Through what a land of poetry and peril was the dead body of Joseph brought out of Egypt! We marvel that no painter has been bold enough to grapple with so sublime a subject. Amid the plagues that struck consternation into the hearts of the old Egyptians, there stood the coffin ready to be borne away: in the deep darkness which overshadowed the land - it stood black and silent amid the deep gloom. When the Israelites departed they bore it away: the pillar of fire flashed redly upon it by night, and by day it was slowly carried behind the pillar of cloud: through the Red Sea it was borne; below that high and terrible wall of water did the body of that dead man pass; then the sleeping billows rolled back, and there the haughty Egyptians found a grave. Through storm and ~battle, and the perils of the wilderness, and the thunder which shook Mount Sinai, was the body of Joseph carried; and when Moses held up his wearied arm and conquered Amalek, it was still there. On the waves of war it was at last washed to the Promised Land; it followed the Ark of God when Jordan was divided, and was at length buried in the field of Shechem, in the ground which Jacob had long before purchased of the sons of Hamor. In the whole annals of time, there is no funeral procession that in sublimity and grandeur approaches his, who when young was sold as a slave to the Egyptians. That dead- march through the God-dried ocean, and over the desert, led by Moses-the man who had spoken to his Maker, and who was a mourner at that solemn funeral-causes the eye to quiver beneath its gloomy and awful grandeur: we see the dead and the living pass away amid the roar of the ocean, the thunder of the Mount, and the clashing of battle upon battle; and while we read, we feel as if we stood trembling in the presence of God.
    I will not break the chain of the reader's thoughts while pondering over this great and grand funeral procession, by pointing to the desecration of the dead in the present day, further than stating that the revolting and impious evil can only be remedied by suburban cemeteries; for around such places there reigns a silence in keeping with the solemnity of death: there no jarring sounds fall upon the ear, for the lulling murmur made by the leaves is in keeping with [-277-] the repose of the dead. Flowers planted upon a grave seem like sacred objects; in our minds they somehow appear to belong to the dead, as if hallowed by the soil in which they have grown. There are numberless passages in our old poets abounding with descriptions of flowers which were dedicated to the dead; and we may, in some future work, return to the subject, and string together a garland of funeral emblems; for 
        "Methinks the flowers
        Have spirits far more beautiful than ours." - Withers.
The gentle hearts of the old poets clung to the flowers with a fond affection; in their eyes they were sweet messengers, bearing meanings and thoughts "too deep for tears," ever hinting of love which dieth not, but liveth on for ever in another state of existence. They traced in the flowers fanciful resemblances of fond passions-likenesses of what they loved and cherished all the more since the original forms which they fancied the flowers resembled were transplanted into the gardens of heaven.
    We who sojourned during the whole of that summer in the very heart of the district which suffered the most severely during that calamitous visitation, almost unconsciously gathered materials for one of those gloomy pictures which so few living witnesses survive to paint, and which we hope may never again darken our pages. We seem like those who, having escaped some perilous shipwreck, sit shuddering on the rock on which they have been thrown, their faces buried in their hands, yet unable to shut out the appalling spectacle they beheld, even after it passed away. Fancy still calls up the phantoms, amid the white foam and the tumbling waves, as they float by, with pale faces, uplifted and beseeching hands; youth and beauty with her long hair unfsound, and crisped with the boiling spray, while manly vigour buffets in vain with the billows, until darkness and destruction sweep over all; and we, like the mournful messenger in Job, "only escaped alone to tell thee."
    The Land of Death in which we dwelt was Newington, hemmed in by Lambeth, Southwark, Bermondsey, and other gloomy parishes through which the pestilence stalked like a Destroying Angel in the deep shadows of the night and the open noon of day, while in every street
        "There was nought but mourning weeds,
        And sorrow and dismay;
        Where burial met with burial still,
        And jostled by the way.'- Hogg.
The "Registrar-General" but gives an account of those who died; but marshals up the forces which have joined the ranks of Death; [-278-] how and where they fell are briefly touched upon; but a description of the battle-ground, with all those little accessories of moving light and shadow which enrich the picture, he leaves to other hands, for they come not within the compass of his graver duties. Though the task is far removed from a pleasant one, it is necessary that we should preserve some record of this eventful season, so that in after- years, when our pages are referred to, a faithful photograph, taken at the true moment of time, may therein be found.
    All day long was that sullen bell tolling-from morning to night, it scarcely ceased a moment; for as soon as it had rung the knell of another departed spirit, there was a fresh funeral at the churchyard- gate, and again that "ding-dong" pealed mournfully through the sad and sultry atmosphere. Those who were left behind, too ill to join the funeral procession, heard not always the returning footsteps of the muffled mourners, for sometimes Death again entered the house while they were absent; and when they reached home they found another victim ready to be borne to the grave: then they sat down and wept in very despair. Death came no longer as of old, knocking painfully at the door of life, but strode noiselessly in, and, before one was well aware, smote his victim-no one could tell how, for the strong man, who appeared hale and well one hour, was weak and helpless the next, and fell without knowing whence the blow came.
    Little children were clothed suddenly in black, almost before they could reconcile themselves to the belief that they had lost their parents. Before they could well understand why their father slept so long, or was placed in a dark box, and carried out at the door in such haste, the mother had also ceased to live; and then they began to comprehend their loss, and wept bitterly to find themselves fatherless, motherless, and destitute. Some of these were so little, that they could but just repeat their prayers. Never more would they kneel at the feet of that dear, fond mother, as they had done but a night or two before; never more would those eyes beam on them again, or that sweet voice patiently instruct them, and, with a smile, repeat the words over and over again, until they knew them all by rote. Alas! they were the other night borne to a strange bed; a strange face bent over them- and, when they rose to kiss it, it turned away. Then the little orphans pressed each other more closely, and wept louder for the loss of their mother. At last, their sobbing subsided, though not until long after they had fallen asleep, perchance on the hard workhouse bed-even those who were before nursed so delicately that the cold wind had never visited their tender cheeks. Many such sudden changes as these have we met with; homes in which one day happiness and comfort reigned, changed on the morrow to the abodes of  [-279-] sorrow, anguish, and naked destitution; or, by the end of the week, empty and closed!
        "Life and thought have gone away side by side,
        Leaving door and windows wide;
        Careless tenants they!
        All within is dark as night: in the windows is no light,
        And no murmur at the door, so frequent on its hinge before. 
        Close the door-the shutters close,
        Or through the windows we shall see
        The nakedness and vacancy
        Of the deserted house." -Tennyson.
In some houses all died; and after the dilapidated building had been closed a few days, other tenants took possession, and, in two or three of these changes, the new tenants also perished-the mercenary landlords never breathing a word about what had befallen the others. The putrid cesspool and stagnant sewer still yawned and. bubbled and steamed in the sunshine, and poisoned all who inhaled the deadly gases; and when but few human beings were left, an investigation took place, and the evil was removed. In several death-engendering courts the whole of the inhabitants were driven out, and fresh shelter found for them until their wretched dwellings were purified.
    So few at first escaped after they were attacked by the malignant and mysterious disease, that you looked upon them as persons who had trodden the confines of another world - as beings rescued from the jaws of death, and destined to accomplish some great mission. You gazed on them in awe and wonder. Those in the prime of life, and ruddy with apparent health, fell around you like summer flowers beneath the scythe of the mower. Then medical men of long standing began to drop off: you missed one here, and another there, and with them hope at last fled. "They cannot save themselves," exclaimed the terror-stricken populace; "then how can we hope to escape if the disease overtake us?" Old nurses who had grown grey in the service of Death shrank back and shuddered as they heard themselves summoned to attend the sick. Thousands who had the means fled into the country and hastened to the sea-side, where they thought themselves secure ; but the wings of the Angel of Death threw a melancholy shadow over the whole land.
    Stout-hearted men who had families started suddenly from their sleep in the dead of night, if they only heard one of their children moaning in its slumber: words muttered in a dream were like a sharp icicle thrust into the heart, for they feared that the Destroyer had come; and they knew that he seldom retired without carrying [-280-] off his victim. In old tavern-parlours, where the same company had assembled for years, the sounds of merriment were no longer heard. Men spoke to one another "with bated breath ;" inquired who was dead, and who dying; and if some old acquaintance was but a few minutes behind his usual time, they sat gazing on his vacant chair in silence, or perchance one ventured to inquire in a whisper if he had been seen that night. Many shook hands at the tavern-doors, went home, and never met again. Four in the morning was a dreaded hour, and numbers no doubt died through fright who were attacked in the faint dawning of the day, for they believed that time to be fatal. In some streets five or six shops that stood together were closed- many were not opened again for several days. You saw the windows standing open day and night, but not a living soul stirred within those walls. Many who died were removed in the night: sometimes twenty were buried in one grave.
    Then the cry arose that the churchyards were too full, that there was no longer any room for the dead. "I must find room, or I shall be ruined," exclaimed the sexton; "it cost me all I had in the world to get elected." The grave-digger threw down his spade, wiped the perspiration from his brow, and said, "Our occupation's gone." The cry increased; and then the incessant tolling of the bell ceased; for an order was issued that the dead should no longer rout the dead, or their sleep be broken almost before the features had been effaced by slow decay. Then Death ceased to become his own avenger; for when he found that the secrets of his dark dominions were no more to be laid bare to the open eye of day, he no longer smote those who trod reverentially on the verge of his territories. The streets were no longer darkened with funerals; you no longer saw men running in every direction with coffins on their heads, knocking at doors, and delivering them with no more ceremony or feeling than the postman delivers his letters. The solemn hearse and the dark mourning-coach now moved slowly along, and the dead were borne away to green and peaceful cemeteries, far removed from the dwellings of the living. Nuisances were removed-sewers were cleansed-the abodes of the poor purified, and at last rendered habitable; and then "the plague was stayed."
    It seemed as if the winds of Heaven, which had been driven away for want of breathing-room, came back again, and flapped their "healing wings above the homes of mankind; as if they were weary of wandering over the houseless sea, and gladly returned to sweep through the lofty streets and open squares, from which they had been driven by the poison-traps which were set every where to destroy them. The sun again gladdened the day, and the round moon walked up the [-281-] starry steep of heaven, while the sky bared its blue bosom, and shewed that the silvery clouds still slumbered there as tranquilly as if the Destroying Angel had never thrown his shadow betwixt earth and heaven.
    Alas, the sun rose upon a shore strown with wrecks, and blackened with the bodies of the dead! If the eye alighted upon the living, it every where settled upon a group of mourners. Death had gone like a gleaner through the land, and taken an ear from every field. Where before had stood a bed of flowers, one resting upon and supporting another, a bare and open gap was found; and too often the tallest, around which the rest clung, had withered, and fallen and died. The place they had once known "would know them no more for ever." The young bride, before the honeymoon had waned, came forth in her widowed weeds. Their first-born child came too late into the world to look on the face of its father. Sometimes the young mother fell before her infant had seen the light: the opening rose and the unfolded bud perished together. Respectable families fell from a state of comfort to almost naked destitution in a single night, 1~ving no mark on the steps of the ladder of time, by which men rise and fall, but plunging headlong to the foot of it in a moment. Some had passed many years in faithful servitude, and at last attained the long- coveted promotion. The larger house, so often talked of, was taken; they entered, and so did Death: the father fell, and with him all their hopes for ever perished. Since that day the garden-roller has never been moved, and where the spade was thrust into the ground when the improvements first commenced, there it rests: perchance the robin may alight upon the handle, and there chant his mournful anthem; but one branch is sawn from the overhanging tree that darkened the drawing-room window; all the rest remain untouched, for the workmen have departed. The merry Christmas so often talked of was a mournful meeting within those walls. What at another period would have formed a little, history of trial, patient endurance, slow change, and long coming misfortune, was now accomplished almost as soon as one could say "It lightens."
    None knew whence the Destroyer came, nor in what hidden corner he lurked. The Registrar for the district we are describing closes his return for Walworth, for the week ending Sept. 8, 1849, in the following words : " It (the disease) has spread over the whole district-into almost every street-and taken persons of all classes, from the most respectable to the poorest. Men hunted for it in the unhealthy drain, and endeavoured to destroy the unwholesome vapour; they searched for it in what they drank, and hoped to get rid of it by boiling the water; they impregnated the air with lime, and in every [-282-] court and alley you passed you inhaled the powerful chloride. Then a change was produced, and the returns of deaths gradually lessened every day; and those who for days and weeks dare not look into a newspaper, for fear of encountering those dark tables of death, were now eager to see the returns, and congratulate their neighbours on the daily decrease. "From the painless nature of the attack," says the same Registrar, "persons seemed to be unconscious how highly necessary it is that immediate attention should be paid to it." Thousands fell through this neglect, who, if the disease had first made its appearance attended by severe pain, would not have lost a single hour without seeking medical aid. Like a flood that slowly undermines a bank, and which the proprietor regards not when he sees so tiny a current dribbling and oozing through, and scarcely bowing the grass between which it trickles, so came the Destroyer- slowly and almost imperceptibly undermining the current of life, and eating out the foundations, until there needed but one mighty rush, and all was over beyond recovery, and the work of destruction was completed. A little precaution would have saved thousands of lives in London alone.
    Let us then agitate for pure air and pure water, and break through the monopolies of water and sewer companies, as we would break down the door of a house to rescue some fellow-creature from the flames that raged within. It rests with ourselves to get rid of these evils; and scarcely one in a hundred will be foolhardy enough to oppose the sanitary measures which are already in motion. To aid these proposed improvements, we deemed it our duty to add to the "Picturesque Sketches of London" a brief but faithful description of the dreadful disease which caused almost every street in the metropolis to be hung in mourning.

Thomas Miller, Picturesque Sketches of London Past and Present, 1852