The London Necropolis Company was formed by an Act of Parliament in 1852, to help cope with the overflowing London cemeteries. The company aimed to create a single, multi-denominational graveyard that the dead of the city could be transported to, which was now possible with the introduction of railways. The London Necropolis Railway was now able to transport both cadavers and mourners to the location of this ‘super-cemetery’ in Brookwood, Surrey.
The Westminster Bridge Road (First) Terminus of the Necropolis Railway. Who needs a ghost train at a fairground?
This series of events that led up to the formation of this system could be seen to correlate directly with Mary Douglas’ idea of dirt being ‘matter out of place’. As it was in London at the time, corpses were piling on top of each other, and the idea of ‘miasma’- the unpleasant smell that emanates from rotting corpses- was seen to be a genuine public health concern. The cholera epidemic of 1848 meant that bodies were piling up like never before, spilling out of the graveyards and moving next to schools and churches- youthful play and community activity contrasting starkly with the static, solitary nature of death. Matter displaced.
Mary Douglas made the point that when you clean, you do so to create order. She saw everything about a dead body to be wrong, not just in the sense of hygiene as would be a most pressing issue in overcrowded London, but if we are also to look to theories such as the ‘uncanny valley’; being surrounded by dead bodies would be a most unsettling experience, through the ‘almost human’, but not quite, nature of the dead.
Therefore this mass movement and relocation of dead bodies was the government’s attempt at restoring order.
An interesting aspect of the system was that despite the site itself being muti-denominational, and a tiered cost system being in place allowing both the poor and the rich to bury their dead, a segregation of class and religion still existed in the train carriages, and the trains would go down different branches for Anglicans and Non-conformists.
Sadly the scheme was not as successful as was initially hoped, and after sustaining damage from a WW2 raid in 1941 the London Necropolis Railway was never used again. However, the idea of moving bodies from crowded areas has in fact remained. In places such as Singapore, Germany and Belgium a public grave is free- but only as a ‘rental’- after 20 years, someone can pay to keep the plot, or the body will be moved to a mass grave or similar.
The biggest challenge as to how to deal with dead bodies have remained the same cross-culturally and over time though. Firstly, the deeply embedded cultural and religious practices of certain groups- that may forbid actions such as cremation- and secondly, the cost of a burial. With burial space becoming more and more difficult to come by, the cost of a plot- particularly in overcrowded cities such as London and Hong Kong- is becoming astronomical, leaving some groups essentially unable to afford to die. In terms of alternatives to burial, many have arisen. The Urban Death Project (www.urbandeathproject.org/) proposes turning your loved ones in to compost like material, returning them to the ‘cycle of nature’, or maybe we should adopt a Tibetan Sky Burial? Whereby the corpse is left to decompose and be eaten by birds of prey on a mountainside.
Death by it’s very nature is mysterious, taboo and has different meanings for different people, whether it is an end or a continuum. And as long as we hold different beliefs as to what death means, it seems unlikely that we will ever reach a full agreement as to how the dead are laid to rest.
1.Arnold, Catherine (2006). Necropolis: London and its dead. London: Simon & Schuster.
2.Clarke, John M. (2004). London’s Necropolis. Stroud: Sutton Publishing
3.Clarke, John M. (2006). The Brookwood Necropolis Railway. Locomotion Papers 143 (4th ed.). Usk, Monmouthshire: The Oakwood Press
4.Connor, J. E. (2005). The London & South Western Rly. London’s Disused Stations 5. Colchester: Connor & Butler
5.Douglas, M. (2003). 10- The System Shattered and Renewed . In: Douglas, M Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, Volume 2. London: Psychology Press. p160-180
6.Gerard. (2015). London Necropolis Railway. Available: http://en.paperblog.com/london-necropolis-railway-548569/. Last accessed 15th March 2015
7.Jackson, L. (2015). Death in the city: the grisly secrets of dealing with Victorian London’s dead. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jan/22/death-city-grisly-secrets-victorian-london-dead. Last accessed 15th March 2015