From London Day and Night by David W. Bartlett (1852)
We beg pardon of the reader for saying a few words upon an unpleasant subject-that of London burials. We shall not give you pleasant pictures of country church-yards, with tall cedars of Lebanon and cypresses, and waving grass over the graves-alas no; there is little of beauty and serenity in London church-yards!
And yet the cemeteries are beautiful, but they are far beyond the limits of the town. There is beautiful Highgate Cemetery, Kensal Green Cemetery, and Abney Park - all pleasant amid quiet spots. But it is only the privileged ones who are buried in such places, only the rich and powerful. Wealth in London helps a man after death. It can and does lay his aching bones to rest in a quiet spot, it covers over his grave with flowers, amid the songs of birds - is not that something?
The wealthy are buried here - where are the poor buried? In Paris, city burials were long ago abolished. It is the same in almost all European towns, but it is not so in London. A few years since, the subject was brought before Parliament, and facts were elicited which created great excitement, and which resulted in good, but the practice still continues with some restrictions. We are the more determined to give our readers an insight into this unpleasant subject, as it is of great importance that the inhabitants of American cities should, before they become any older, avoid the errors of European Cities. We are glad that Boston has her lovely Mount Auburn, New York her sweet Greenwood shades, and Philadelphia her Laurel Hill ; and we hope with all our heart, that in every city in America, cemeteries without the confines of the town may spring up, and that public opinion, will prevent any more burials in town.
Many times in our walks about London we have noticed the grave-yards attached to the various churches, for in almost every case, they are elevated considerably above the level of the sidewalk, and in some instances, five or six feet above it. The reason was clear enough - it was an accumulation for years of human dust, and that too in the centre of the largest city in the world.
We soon made the discovery that the burial business (we beg of the reader not to be shocked, for we tell the unvarnished truth) was a thieving trade in London, a speculation into which many enter, and a great profit to the proprietors of the city churches, whether State or Dissenting. Upon reading authorities, we were thunderstruck at the state of things only three or four years since, and which are now only slightly improved. Extra cautions were taken during the cholera year, but since, matters have been allowed to take the old and accustomed channels.
The facts which we state are but too true. They were sworn to by men to be trusted, before a Committee of the house of Commons, appointed by that body to search into this horrible burial trade.
St. Martin's Church, measuring 295 feet by 379, in the course of ten years received 14,000 bodies. St. Mary's, in the region of the Strand, and covering only half an acre, has by fair computation during fifty years received 20,000 bodies. Was ever anything heard of more frightful? But hear this: two men built, as a mere speculation, a Methodist Church in New Kent Road, and in a mammoth vault beneath the floor of that church, 40 yards long, 25 wide, and 20 high, 2000 bodies were found, not buried, but piled up in coffins of wood one upon the other. This in all conscience is horrible enough, but seems quite tolerable in comparison with another case.
A church, called Enon Chapel, was built some twenty years ago, by a minister, as a speculation, in Clement's Lane in the Strand, close on to that busiest thoroughfare in the world. He opened the upper part for the worship of God, and devoted the lower - separated from the upper merely by a board floor - to the burial of the dead. In this place, 60 feet by 29 and 6 deep, 12,000 bodies have been interred! It was dangerous to sit in the church ; faintings occurred every day in it, and sickness, and for some distance about it, life was not safe. And yet people not really knowing the state of things, never thought of laying anything to the vault under the chapel.
But perhaps the reader will exercise his arithmetical powers, and say that it would be impossible to bury 12,000 persons in so small a place, within twenty years. He does not understand the manner in which the speculating parson managed his affairs. It came out before the Committee of the House of Commons, that sixty loads of mingled dirt and human remains were carted away from the vault at different times, and thrown into the Thames the other side of Waterloo Bridge. Once a portion of a load fell off in the street, and the crowd picked up out of it a human skull. It was no longer safe to cart away the remains, and yet the reverend speculator could not afford to lose his fine income from the burials, and so his ever-busy intellect invented a novel mode of getting rid of the bodies - he used great quantities of quicklime! But quicklime would not devour coffins, and so they were split up and burnt in secret by the owner of the chapel. several witnesses swore to this before the Committee. Said one of them:
"I have seen the man and his wife burn them it is quite a common thing."
It may be said that this state of things has passed away - but such is not the fact. We have ourselves looked into an open grave which was filled up with coffins to within a foot of the surface of the ground, and that too within ten rods of one of the busiest streets in London. A friend of ours assured us he has witnessed of late, things quite as horrible as any that were related before the Committee of the House of Commons.
It was proved that very many of the churches in London were in the habit of carting away the remains of bodies at intervals to make room for the later dead. St. Martin's in Ludgate, St. Anne's, in Soho, St. Clement's, in Portugal. street, and many others were proved guilty of the practice.
W. Chamberlain, grave-digger at St. Clement's, testified that the ground was so full of bodies that he could not make a new grave "without coming into other graves." He said:
"We have come to bodies quite perfect, and we have cut parts away with choppers and pickaxes. We have opened the lids of coffins, and the bodies have been so perfect that we could distinguish males from females and all those have been chopped and cut up. During the time I was at this work, the flesh has been cut up in pieces and thrown up behind the boards which are placed to keep the ground up where the mourners are standing-and when time mourners are gone this flesh has been thrown in and jammed down, and the coffins taken away and burnt."
An assistant grave-digger testified that, happening to see his companion one day chopping off the head of a coffin, he saw that it was his own father's! Another digger testified that bodies were often cut through when they had been buried only three weeks. Another testified to things more horrible than ever Dante saw in hell. He says: " One day I was trying the length of a grave to see if it was long and wide enough, and while I was there the ground gave way, and a body turned right over, and the two arms came and clasped me round the neck!"
We beg the pardon of the reader for relating such horrible facts - but they occurred in London, and the cities and towns of America may well profit by them. There need not be such terrible curses attending a crowded state of population, but such will be the case eventually in our own towns unless we take warning,
When one thinks of the thousands in London who must look forward to a burial in the pent-up church-yards in the city, it makes the heart ache. To think of burying a kind mother so - of following a dear sister to such a grave. Yet thousands from poverty must do so.
Contrast with such spots the sweet though lovely burial grounds in the country, with its tall cedars, its solemn cypresses, and its grassy mounds, over which affection lingers and weeps. The church-spire is old and kindly in its look, the breezes are solemn and pure - oh the contrast!
We once made a delightful journey into an old and ancient part of England with a friend, going on foot miles away from the line of railway in a quiet old village, which seemed a thousand years old. The reader can hardly imagine the quaintness of everything there - the sweet quietness which brooded over the neglected spot. After a meal by ourselves in the ancient in of the place, we wandered out into the village streets and over the fields. The people seemed old and quaint, but the beauty of the hills and valleys we never saw surpassed. Wandering at will we at length came to the village church and burial-ground. The church stood in the midst of a field of graves, and was nearly covered with green runners and vines. There were ancient tombs grassed over and mossed over by centuries; there were cedars of Lebanon, and solemn cypresses, and flowers, and all that is holy and beautiful. We entered the little gate and walked slowly from tomb to tomb, reading the solemn inscriptions with chastened thoughts. The sun was almost down, but shone with a solemn splendour upon the spot, and the gravestones cast long shadows to the eastward. We could hear faintly in time distance the murmurs of a waterfall, and the music seemed plaintive there. There was no music, no eager life, but the spirit of holy Quiet was there. Gradually the shadows grew longer, until at last the burning sun dropt down behind the western hills, and the church-yard was in gloom.
A gentle south wind sprung up among the Lebanon cedars in tones of sorrow; the tall grass waved to and fine over the craves, and so like the close of a good man's life closed the day.
And that spot is a place where one could love to weep over a dear, departed friend. There, among the flowers and branches, sunshine and shadows, one could rest over a mother's or a sister's grave, and look forward to a home there, as a place where to
"Wrap the drapery of his couch around him,
And lie down to pleasant dreams."