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Swellboy on… Victorian cemeteries

The eccentrics at the forefront of the 19th-century cemetery craze

Swellboy on… Victorian cemeteries

Image: Brijesh Patel

March 04 2012
Nick Foulkes

I note with interest that the winner of the 2012 Costa Book Award has written about the cemeteries of late-18th-century Paris. Of course, it is good for Costa that the winning author could be mistaken for actor Greg Wise, with the sort of good looks usually described as smouldering (as opposed to blazing) and not customarily associated with the lugubrious mien of the undertaker. But beyond that, it promises to be a fascinating book.

It was the 1804 launch of Père Lachaise cemetery that changed the European way of death. But the necropolis notion was not an overnight success and, indeed, the proprietors had to stage publicity stunts, such as relocating what was left of Molière to Père Lachaise, and even went so far as re-interring the alleged remains of those 12th-century celebrity lovers Abelard and Heloise, before the business took off.

The success of Père Lachaise prompted the British cemetery boom of the early Victorian era. Fuelled by the fear of disease spread through improperly buried corpses and of body snatchers or “resurrection men” selling freshly exhumed bodies to medical schools, the mid-19th-century mania for speculation embraced the business of death.

That there was a problem was undeniable. Many London cemeteries that had been full at the time of the Great Plague were still in use and, as the laissez faire Georgian way of doing (or rather, not doing) things mutated into the Victorian zeal for reform and improvement, men with a newly awakened social conscience got quite het up about the business of dying.

When the occasion demanded, Dickens could summon up some pretty colourfully phrased righteous indignation; he really went to town on mephitic burial grounds in one of the memorable passages in Bleak House describing just such a churchyard. “With houses looking on, on every side, save where a reeking little tunnel of a court gives access to the iron gate – with every villainy of life in action close on death, and every poisonous element of death in action close on life – here they lower our dear brother down a foot or two, here sow him in corruption, to be raised in corruption: an avenging ghost at many a sick-bedside, a shameful testimony to future ages how civilization and barbarism walked this boastful island together.”

Eugh.

But as well as touching his reforming piety, the burial business must surely have appealed to his satirist’s eye, as the extra-mural burial boom captured the imagination of some interesting characters. Among them was John Claudius Loudon, a one-armed landscape gardener, campaigning horticultural journalist, editor of various gardening periodicals, inventor, greenhouse maker, author of numerous gardening books and former laudanum addict. He was married to a science-fiction writer, whose futuristic novel The Mummy’s Tale, set in 2126, he had reviewed enthusiastically for Gardener’s Magazine, identifying a kindred visionary in the author – who, as luck had it, turned out to be a 23-year-old woman.

As well as addressing the public-health issues, Loudon saw the out-of-town cemetery as a place where the less well educated could come and improve themselves. It was a “source of amelioration or instruction” where they could acquire good taste, learn about architecture, study monumental sculpture, and derive moral nourishment from the monuments commemorating lives well lived – all while mourning the death of a loved one. Where others might just see dead bodies, he saw a force for public good, capable of “improving the manners and extending virtuous and generous feelings”.

However, my favourite character from a cast of eccentrics is Stephen Geary, who had foundered as a developer of public buildings (his police station at King’s Cross was soon unfit for purpose and transformed into a pub), and became bankrupt as the failed developer of a leisure centre with billiard rooms, shops, pleasure gardens and a theatre, a sort of 19th-century Westfield that had gone by the name of the Royal Panarmonion.

Undeterred, he turned his hand to the cemetery business. And this time he would go all out: his was to be a veritable theme park of death. Of course, there would be classical styling for those who wished it, but above all there would be variety. The various chapels would exhibit the fanciful mock-medieval gothicism that would eventually see the style traduced into numberless suburban villas; the trend for the Egyptian look would be met with an Egyptian Avenue of mausolea, and more Egyptian design cues would be hijacked to embellish the “Circle of Lebanon” around a generations-old cedar tree.

And from this bouillabaisse of burial-ground architecture he managed to create something that is today viewed as one of the great creations of Victorian London. It is called Highgate Cemetery, and I hope Geary made a killing.

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