The Victorian Way of Death

Spending your Sunday afternoons in a cemetery may not immediately strike you as a viable option, but on one of the hottest weekends of the year, 2/3 of the TC editorial team could be found in Nunhead Cemetery, not far from Underhill Road (fortunately only visiting). But this is no ordinary dead zone – Nunhead, together with it’s more famous relative Highgate, are burial grounds founded by the London Cemetery Company, which today still provide a gorgeously morbid insight into the subject of the title.

As Victoria came to the throne, the problem of disposing of the bodies of dead Londoners was coming to a head. The population of the city was increasing rapidly – from 900,000 in 1801 to more than 2¬ million just 50 years later – and the city churchyards could no longer cope; people received a temporary burial locally before being removed elsewhere. Eventually, fears that having all these corpses in the city would cause an epidemic led to Parliament passing a bill in 1836, founding the London Cemetery Company. Three years later, they established Highgate cemetery, in North London and the following year Nunhead, at that time in Surrey, followed. This was no philanthropic act – 17 acres at Highgate cost a mere £3,500 and even conservative calculations show enough graves could be crammed in to make sixty times this in burial fees.

The Victorian attitude to death was very different to the one we have today. They believed the way a society disposed of its dead was a reflection of its treatment for the living and so, for example, cemeteries were places of botanical education, containing specimens of foreign plants and trees. Whole families would come down on Sunday afternoons, go into their family vaults and take tea with their relatives (deceased). Even after death, they were still very class-conscious – often graves were built with glass panels in them to allow the quality of the coffin to be seen! Seeing such a picnic is supposed to have been one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’.

There were problems to be faced, too. In certain cemeteries, the water table was too close to the surface (both Nunhead & Highgate, being built on hills, are alright) which meant the grave-diggers often hit ground water. The solution was to place a board just above the water surface, and sprinkle some earth on it to give the appearance of solid ground. Then, once the mourners had left, the board could be removed and the lead-lined coffin would sink majestically beneath the waves. Lead-lined coffins posed problems of their own – although intended to slow down decomposition by being airtight, occasionally the build-up of gas inside them proved too much, and they would, quite literally, explode. Having bits of Uncle Fred spatter the proceeding would put a damper on any Sunday afternoon tea party.

Another ghoulish tale concerns the family grave of the Rossetti family. Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a famous Victorian painter and poet – when his wife, Elizabeth, died he placed his notebook of unpublished poems in the coffin with her as a gesture of love. Some time later, egged on by his literary agent, he regretted this move and obtained permission to exhume her body (no doubt with a little palm-greasing), retrieve the notebook and publish the poems. She is supposed to have been just as beautiful as when she was interred, tho’ how much of this was to comfort Rossetti (who was, understandably, not present), I don’t know.

Laika ac from UK / CC BY-SA (

The memorials themselves are far more varied than those seen today, often reflecting the occupation of the internee; an animal trainer has a sleeping lion, a cricketer a set of demolished stumps. Symbolism is rampant, as in most things Victorian (cf. Holman Hunt’s picture ‘The Awakening Conscience’ for the best example) – everywhere, there are lights snuffed out, columns of life broken, serpents devouring their tails (a tad pagan, perhaps) and any number of weeping angels, most of which resemble Emmanuelle Beart. These monuments became extraordinarily ornate and expensive – in 1876, Julius Beer, founder of The Observer newspaper paid œ5,800 for his memorial, including the cost of the land. Assuming a modest 5% rate of inflation, that’s the equivalent of over œ1« million nowadays.

This obsession with death couldn’t last and eventually the industries relating to the cemeteries and the cemeteries themselves had to be reduced in scale. The London Cemetery Company went bust in 1975 and for a while Nunhead, taken over by Southwark Council, entered a period of benign neglect, with only the modern areas being maintained (there’s still plenty of room, however – it currently holds 250,000 bodies and won’t be full until the year 2030 at the current rate). Highgate was in an even worse state – graves were desecrated and various dubious practices occurred (the reader is referred to ‘The Highgate Vampire’ by Sean Manchester for a straight-faced account of a battle against an undead creature).

Fortunately, as often happens, some people refused to let these pieces of social and natural history ‘die’ and formed associations to preserve them, which gradually, very gradually, are winning the fight. The eventual aim is not to tidy up the cemeteries completely, since much of the charm is their semi-overgrown nature, but to produce a range of states, from the geometrically precise Victorian pristine, to the ivy and moss encrusted ruins, which can be enjoyed by as many people as possible.

So next time you have some spare time in London, think about visiting Highgate Cemetery (they do daily tours there, while Nunhead has only one a month at the moment). Karl Marx, Sir Ralph Richardson, Michael Faraday, and even the inventor of Hovis bread are all buried in the grounds. While
maybe not as lively as other attractions, it can claim to be (ah, the old jokes are the best) the dead centre of London…

Of course, some people find other uses for cemeteries. Those of a sensitive disposition should probably skip the rest of this, as TC is about to go rapidly downhill. Difficult though that may be to believe…

Dead Boring

It’s not that immoral… Yes, I refer to the treasured pastime of those select few, including myself: necrophilia. Considered perhaps something of an acquired taste by the majority of society, it is my belief that this activity is in fact perfectly acceptable social conduct and should be acknowledged as such in the community. Too often, I find, is necrophilia represented in a bad light today – a stigma has surrounded it for years for some reason – whereas it is in reality wholly permissible, respectable and actually somewhat soothing in my experience.

One should not be made to feel guilty by the majority; surely it is a simple human right that one man be allowed to pop into a graveyard for a quickie and maybe bring back a corpse for tea with mother and a shag upstairs. Perhaps this kind of date isn’t so talkative, but then you don’t dig them up for their conversation. Necrophilia has other benefits, I might add. There is no risk of pregnancy or even sexually-transmitted diseases as generally the offending viruses are unable to inhabit a dead host. However, it is still advisable to wear a condom all the same, since it saves time spent scraping away all of the dead skin/flesh that has become attached during intercourse.

Despite what one may have been led to believe, a necrophile actually meets some genuinely interesting (or should I say ‘absorbing’?) people while on the pull. A date is always guaranteed – stiffs are not accustomed to washing their hair of an evening and naturally the irritating possibility of a headache at an inappropriate time is eliminated. Wherever one gets one’s corpse, whether it be fresh from the site of a motor-vehicle accident, or a little aged, dragged out from it’s coffin beneath the moon, the stiff always looks damn nice in some quality lingerie, accompanied by some soft music and the enchanting odour of embalming fluid (or the coppery aroma of blood, depending on the state of the body). A morgue is often the best place to go: it can be considered simply as a showroom for the necrophile, he (or she) is able to select with ease the body that they desire – perhaps the corpse of his/her dreams. Additionally, you have the option, common to necrophilia in general, of return and replacement if the goods are unsatisfactory.

“Size isn’t everything”, they generally say, but for the female necrophile that likes a well-endowed carcass, the essential member is interchangeable with the help of some good scissors (or a hacksaw) and a needle & thread. And a dead date gives it to you straight. On the other side of the coin, the female corpse never gives you a faked orgasm with all the accompanying screams – the stiff just lies there squelching sometimes, at the disposal of the necrophile. You know where you stand with a cadaver.

Nowhere else is the incredible unity between the living and the dead so tenderly and sensitively demonstrated as with necrophilia. A dating agency is a thing of the past, from now on lovers all over the world will be flocking to their local graveyards, morgues and motorways to find their ideal partner and build a relationship. Although a corpse can leave a dubious smell around the house, it is on the other hand fairly cheap to feed and with some teaching may even learn to do the housework. At present I’m going out with a 23-year old road accident and things have never been better. So: “Get a corpse today, and while the hours away!!”

(Author’s name redacted!)