Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 16 - Kensal Green

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IN a novel by M. Paul de Kock, it is stated that the principal promenades of the English people take place in cemeteries, which are congenial places of resort to a nation suffering from the spleen. So far as I, an unit in the nation, am concerned, the French author's assertion is to some extent correct. I do not exactly know what the spleen is, and consequently I may be suffering from it unconsciously but, whatever may be the motive power, I have a taste for wandering in churchyards, and looking at those houses which the gravemaker builds, and which "last till doomsday." Both in Germany and in England there is a certain due sense of solemnity about the churchyard ; walking in them, one feels with the man of Uz, that "there the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together ; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and great are there, and the servant is free from his master." They are essentially places for meditation and reflection, and as an antidote against an overweening sense of worldliness, I would back an afternoon spent in one of certain churchyards which I know - say, haphazard, Hendon, Stoke-Pogis, Stratford-on-Avon - against most of the trenchant homilies I have listened to. As old Thoresby the antiquarian says "One serious walk [-165-] over a churchyard might make a man mortified to the world, to consider how many he treads upon who once lived in fashion and repute, but are now quite forgot. Imagine you saw your bones tumbled out of your graves as they are like shortly to be, and men handling your skulls, and inquiring 'Whose is this?' Tell me of what account will the world be then?"
    Of the English cemetery, however, I knew nothing, until, on a blazing July afternoon, I set out for Kensal Green.
    Just as a town has its suburbs, an army its pioneers, and a village its outskirts, so the great cemetery of Kensal Green (dedicated appropriately enough to All Souls) makes its vicinity felt some time before it is actually in sight. Once past the turnpike on the road, though yet a good half-mile from the nearest entrance, you are struck with certain signs and tokens which speak significantly of the region. The building to the right, just by the turn in the road, is an establishment for the sale of tombstones, and that monotonous grinding sound, which so grates on the ear, is occasioned by the polishing or the smoothing of the surface of a huge slab, destined to be sacred to the memory of some person unknown, who is not impossibly at this moment alive and well. As you trudge along, and before you have done speculating how often the muddy canal to your left has been compared to the Styx, and whether a certain yard or field, also on the left, has been made a receptacle for carts and waggons which had departed this life, solely because of its locality; and, if not, why so many broken-up vehicles are there congregated, you come to more tombstone establishments. Statuary and mason are inscribed after the dealers' names on the fašade, but this is a mere euphuistic fencing with the subject. The only statuary sold is for the graveyard the only masonry dealt in is for the crypt or mausoleum. Past the snug-looking Plough Inn, at the old-[-166-]fashioned entrance to which stands an empty hearse, and at the windows whereof several professional gentlemen, arrayed in solemn black, are indulging in bibulous refreshment; past an elaborate monument on which mortuary emblems are crowded in great profusion - an hour-glass surmounting two dead lions, and a couple of weeping females supporting an affecting tablet, whereon a trade advertisement is inscribed; past several shops where even the pictorial literature assumes a mournful character, the nearest approach to humour being a "ladder of matrimony," which commences with "hope," and ends in "despair," such end being typified by the cheerful emblem of a foundering ship ; past the shop-window full of white and yellow immortelles, which look like so many wedding-rings from the fingers of departed Brobdingnagians; and, duly armed with a courteous letter from the secretary of the company, I present myself through the arched entrance to the cemetery.
    Having conferred with the pleasant-looking rubicund gatekeeper, an evidently cheerful philosopher, who supplies me with an Illustrated Guide to Kensal Green Cemetery, and requests me to wait until the clerk is disengaged, I stroll into the garden and sit down. A Frenchman, with wife and family, are chattering on the adjoining seat, eating bon-bons, and gazing round the cemetery with a critical air, as comparing it with cemeteries of their own land. It is some time before I see any other visitors, and it may be worth stating that during the whole time I was in the cemetery (some hours) I met with only one person in mourning ; a widow, whose scarlet petticoat, I may be excused for mentioning, contrasted gracefully with her looped-up black dress, making a tasteful setting to a remarkably neat pair of feet. Three or four damsels from the neighbourhood, a tender couple apparently on the first round of the ladder of matrimony aforesaid, a couple of carriages with provincial occupants, and one or two people who were selecting ground, were, besides [-167-] the gardeners and servants employed by the company, my only fellow-explorers on the day I devoted to the city of the dead. "The clerk" was not, as I hastily concluded, a clerk of the works, a sort of overseer who looked after the persons employed, and kept the books of the company, but the severe ecclesiastical official who reads the responses, and says "Amen!" after the clergyman. His engagement was of course a funeral, or, as he termed it, when politely apologising for having kept me waiting, "an interment." Both these words mean the same thing of course ; but as I have remarked that undertakers invariably use the latter, I have long inferred that its enunciation is, in some inexplicable way, considered to be more palatable to survivors. Be this as it may, an interment had detained the clerk, whose name I have not the pleasure of knowing, but whom I mentally christened Mr. Dawe. He was a little man, dressed in black, with the conventional white tie, and his daily occupation had left its trace both upon his bearing and his voice. The one was sympathetic, and the other soft, and his general demeanour was that of sparing your feelings. Both communicative and intelligent, he never wearied, either of ministering to my inquisitiveness, or accompanying me on my rounds, but he was consistent throughout, and furnished me with statistics in a manner which impressively said all flesh is grass. The conservatory to the right, Mr.. Dawe informs me, has only been in existence this year, and was started by the cemetery company, to supply an increasing demand for flowers on graves a demand which the adjacent nursery gardeners were not always able to meet. Would I like to see the inside of it?
    Not greatly different from other buildings of the same character; flowers, blooming in their several pots, and the usual paraphernalia of a greenhouse lying about. Each of these plants is destined to be transferred to a grave ; but as the end for which they are tended and nurtured is their [-168-] only speciality, we leave the greenhouse, and proceed up the centre road. Those wooden "sleepers" reared against the wall are of seasoned wood, and are used during the formation of earthworks anti in building brick graves. On our way to the chapel, disturbed neither by the constant whizzing past of trains on the divers lines adjacent, nor by the incessant " Crack, crack !" from the riflemen at practice on Wormwood Scrubs, Mr. Dawe informs me that the cemetery is vested in a joint-stock company of proprietors; that it has been in existence more than thirty years; and that from fifty to sixty thousand persons are interred herein. This he considers a low estimate, as there are some eighteen thousand graves, and an average of three or four bodies in each. How many burials does he consider the rule per week? Perhaps seven a day in summer, and eight in winter; he has known as many as twelve in one winter's day, but that was exceptional. No, this cemetery never inters on Sundays. It used to do so formerly, but has given the practice up for years; the Roman Catholic one adjoining it to the west does, and also, he believes, the one at Willesden; and if I should ever attend the chapel of Lock Hospital, and hear of, or see, irreverent burial processions passing on the road, perhaps I will remember that they are not coming here, but to one of the two grounds adjacent.
    What is the size of the cemetery? Well, between seventy and eighty acres. Forty-seven acres are at present in actual use, but thirty additional acres have been recently consecrated, the party-wall having just been taken down and workmen are now employed in making roads and laying out the ground. A portion of the original forty-seven acres is unconsecrated, and appropriated to dissenters. This portion has its separate chapel and catacombs; and a dissenting minister, provided by the company, attends the funerals therein. Any other minister preferred by the friends of the deceased is permitted to officiate, and if [-169-] desired, the body may be consigned to earth without any ceremony. Perhaps I have read in the papers of the Indian princess brought here the other day, and whose remains some of her Sikh servants wished to have burnt? Well, this was a case in point. The coffin was placed in the dissenters' catacomb, and, though a speech was delivered which Mr. Dawe, though not speaking the Sikh tongue, believes to have been on the virtues of the deceased, the burial is described in the company s registry-book by the words "no ceremony." It was a large funeral, with many carriages. No, not the largest he had seen ; perhaps one of them ; but then he had only been here a few months, and it is in place of the superintendent, who is away, that he is acting as my guide. The most numerously-attended interment coming tinder his own observation was that of the secretary to the Young Men's Christian Association; and the next that of Sir Cresswell Cresswell, who lies under the plain slab before us. There has not been time to procure a monument, explains Mr. Dawe ; but you will he interested to learn, sir, that the poor gentleman came up here and selected that bit of ground for himself, not ten days before he met with the accident from the effects of which he died. What constitutes a dissenter in the eyes of the company ? Well, nobody can be buried in consecrated ground unless the "Committal Service" is read by a clergyman of the Church of England. That is the only stipulation, and other rites may be, and sometimes are, previously performed elsewhere. The company has nothing to do with that: only, if the Church Service be objected to, the burial must be in the dissenters' or unconsecrated portion of the cemetery. Are there any quaint out-of-the-way epitaphs or inscriptions on any of the tombs? No, Mr. Dawe does not know of one. You see, nothing can be inscribed upon any tomb until it has been submitted to, and approved by, a sub-committee of the directors, which meets every month; [-170-]  and any ludicrous or unseemly proposition would be at once refused. Does he know of many instances in which it has been fruitles~sly attempted to put questionable inscriptions ? Of none ; and he believes that an out-of-the-way country churchyard might be found which contains more of these curiosities of bad taste than have ever been even "tried on" since the formation of the cemetery. This Mr. Dawe attributes to the spread of education, and to the cemetery being devoted principally to the well-to-do classes. Nothing would have tempted me to shake a standard of taste shared in by so many people besides this worthy clerk so, agreeing that the possession of money invariably elevates the mind and purifies the heart, I asked in all reverence which was considered the most costly tomb in the grounds ? I was taken to a sort of temple in gray marble, the peculiarity of which is, as I was begged to observe, that on entry you go up a step instead of down one, and the graceful shape and the polished sides of which are decidedly handsome and a little heathenish.
    This, I was told, cost some three thousand pounds, and I uncovered my head accordingly. The one nearly opposite, not yet finished, would come to about two thousand pounds; while the foundations just laid down were for a vault to hold twelve people, and to cost more than a thousand pounds. What is the bricked pit in the centre for - the coffins ? Oh dear no A grating would be placed over that, and would form the flooring of the vault, while the coffins would be ranged round the walls at the sides. Did I observe the thickness of the masonry ? Well, this pit was designed to receive the ashes of the people interred, if - say a thousand years hence - these walls should crumble and decay. It was being built by a gentleman for himself and family, who, when in town, takes the deepest interest in the work, coming here every day to see how the building progresses. No time to meditate upon the strangeness of this idiosyn-[-171-]crasy, for we have arrived at the chapel, and Mr. Dawe hands me over to another official, while he transacts some business with a fat and jolly-looking couple who "want to look at a bit of ground." Again, as when in the conservatory, a singular feeling arises as to the speciality of the building. As in every other instance flowers are associated with joy and life, so in every other sacred edifice bridals and christenings, with their attendant prayers, and hopes and fears, are as germane as the last rites to the dead. But there is no altar here wherefrom to pronounce the marriage blessing, no font round which parents and friends have clustered, and the double row of seats at each side have been used by mourners, professed or real, but by mourners only. It needs no guide to explain the use of the black trestles in the centre of the building. Some thousands of coffins have probably rested on them, though they are only used for the burials in the grounds. For the coffins deposited in the catacombs below, these trestles are not required. They are placed on a hydraulic press, and lowered through the floor by machinery, as the clergyman reads the service.
    We go down by a stone staircase, and I am speedily in the centre of a wide avenue, out of which branch other avenues; and on stone shelves on each side of these rest coffins. This is Catacomb B. Catacomb A is away from the chapel, and has long been filled. This present catacomb has room for five thousand bodies, and my companion (who has been custodian of the vaults for the last thirty years) considers it about half full. I am therefore in a village below ground, of some two thousand five hundred dead inhabitants, and I can (not without reproaching myself for the incongruity) compare it to nothing but a huge wine-cellar. The empty vaults are precisely like large bins, and were it not for the constant gleams of daylight from the numerous ventilating shafts, my guide with his candle would [-172-] seem to be one of those astute cellarmen who invariably appear to return from the darkest corners with a choicer and a choicer wine. The never altogether absent daylight destroys this illusion, and I proceed to examine the coffins around me. They are, as a rule, each in a separate compartment, some walled up with stone, others having an iron gate and lock and key, others with small windows in the stone ; others, again, are on a sort of public shelf on the top. The private vaults are fitted up, some with iron bars for the coffins to rest on, others with open shelves, so that their entire length can be seen. The price of a whole vault, holding twenty coffins, is, I learn, one hundred and ninety-nine pounds; of one private compartment, fourteen pounds ; the cost of interment in a public vault is four guineas; each of these sums being exclusive of burial fees, and an increased rate of charges being demanded when the coffin is of extra size. Rather oppressed with the grim regularity with which every one of these arrangements is systematised, I am not sorry to ascend the stairs, and ask my companion how he would find a particular coffin buried say twenty years before. By its number - and he shows me a little book wherein all these matters are methodically set down, and in which, in case of burials out of doors, under the head of "remarks "- I find the locality of each grave thus described: " Fifteen feet west of Tompkins;" or, " three feet south of Jones," as the case may be. " We have so many of the same name," exclaims the catacomb keeper, "that we should never find them unless the whole place were planned out into squares and numbers." Here Mr. Dawe joins us, and I ask to be taken to the dissenters' catacomb, that I may see for myself the last resting-place of the poor woman whose ashes have been squabbled over, and written on by Sikh and Christian. On the way, I inquire how many men are employed at the cemetery? Mr. Dawe has difficulty in saying, as so many labourers are [-173-] occasionally employed. Night watchman? Oh yes, there is a night watchman, who is armed with a gun, which he fires every night at ten. He is accompanied by a faithful dog, and patrols the cemetery the whole of the night. No, he has no particular beat. Formerly, he had to be at the entrance to each catacomb (they are situated at the two extremities of the grounds) at stated hours during the night, and "tell-tales" were provided, to test his punctuality, but these have not been used for many years. The directors having perfect confidence in their servant, think it better that he should be left free, than by compelling him to be at one place at a particular time, enable possible depredators to make their calculations accordingly.
    No, he is not aware of any attempt ever having been made to rob the cemetery. It is thoroughly known that an armed man patrols throughout the night, and it is not known where he is likely to be. The lead on the roof of the catacombs and chapels is of many hundred pounds' value, and the marble of many of the statues and tombs is very costly; but these things are heavy to move, and Mr. Dawe thinks the existing arrangements a sufficient protection against robbery. When the wall was being taken down, and the recently consecrated thirty acres added, two extra men were employed as sentries to guard that point, but it is no longer a weak one, and the original watchman is once more held to be sufficient. There are two gate-keepers, several gardeners, a messenger, who takes a duplicate "sexton's book" and other papers to the London office every day, and others. Two of the gardeners and this messenger are sworn constables, and on Sundays assume a policeman's dress and keep order among the visitors. The graves are not dug by servants of the company, but by contract with one of the tombstone-makers, whose house I passed outside. This end of the centre walk is not occupied near the gravel, because it is only let on the condition of the lessee [-174-] spending not less than from two to three hundred pounds on a monument, and such people have hitherto preferred to be at the end nearest the chapel. The "monumental chambers"~ above the catacombs are devoted to tablets containing the names and descriptions of many of the people buried below. Yes, there is an extra charge of a guinea a foot for all space thus occupied. (As we walk their length, I discern more than one piece of mortuary work having a cramped look, as if the statuary had been restricted in his scope. Again I had to reproach myself for an incongruous simile, but the "guinea a foot" and the closely-covered walls reminded me strangely of advertisement charges, and of the bill-stickers' hoardings which deface our streets.) I stoop to look for the inscription on an elaborate piece of sculpture occupying a prominent position at one end of the chamber, and am told it is not put there in memory of anyone. "Ordered by a lady, sir, to commemorate the death of a male relative, but she died before it was finished, and her heirs declining to take it, it was thrown on the sculptor's hands, and as he happened to be one of our directors, he had it brought here (perhaps as a not unlikely place to attract a purchaser), "and now he's dead; so here it's likely to remain." On admiring the foliage in the grounds, I am told that all trees are, from their rain-droppings, injurious to tombs, and that the weeping willow is the most detrimental of all; but for this, there would be many more planted ; but, notwithstanding this drawback, many people like the vicinity of the last-named tree. What is that little bed of fine soil, destitute of shrub or plant, and decked out with empty cups and saucers, irrelevant and misplaced? A grave. The cups are for choice flowers, the bed is for rare plants; but the heirs of its occupier are abroad, so it remains bald and shabby-looking, without even its natural covering of turf. Such cases are not uncommon, says Mr. Dawe : all melancholy [-175-] enthusiasm at the funeral ; flowers ordered and the company engaged to keep them in order, at the regulation charge of a guinea a year. Two years generally find enthusiasm cooled down, and the guinea discontinued. For ten guineas the company undertake to keep up the flowers for ever; and I agree with Mr. Dawe, that, the weakness of human nature considered, this is the best plan. The price for merely turfing is half-a-crown a year, or four guineas in perpetuity : the contract for flowers being only ten times the annual subscription, that for turf more than thirty times. ibis, however, is explained by the fact that flowers add to the general beauty of the cemetery, and that it is the interest of the directors, even at a slight pecuniary sacrifice, to encourage their growth.
    But here are the dissenters' chapel and catacombs. Both somewhat dingier and smaller than the other, but managed on a precisely similar plan. And down here, in a coffin covered with white velvet, and studded with brass nails, rests the Indian dancing-woman, whose strong will and bitter enmity toward England caused Lord Dalhousie to say of her, when in exile, that she was the only person our government need fear. I place my hand on the coffin, and holding the candle obliquely see a large gilt plate, whereon her name and titles are engraved. And now, a hasty visit to the office of the company at the gateway; a glance through the registry-book; another at the sexton's books-thirty-five fat volumes, with the particulars of every burial since the establishment of the company; another at the huge brassbound heap, whereon the entire burial-ground is to be found in sectional divisions, each name being written in; and I say good-bye to Mr. Dawe.