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NECROPOLIS by Catharine Arnold


London and Its Dead

by Catharine Arnold

Pub Date: Feb. 15th, 2007
ISBN: 0-7432-6833-4
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK/Trafalgar

Everything you always wanted to know about perishing in London.

In this history of the removal of deceased people, we learn, for example, that the Piccadilly underground line had to be rerouted because of the density of bones in the way of construction. The author digs up details about the noxious effluvia of human putrescence in London. She describes the city’s medieval Danse Macabre. We follow the course of the Grim Reaper through plague years witnessed by Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe. After the Great Fire, tombstones rose as architect Sir Christopher Wren, disgusted by interment within church buildings, promoted suburban final resting places. In the 18th century, the undertaking trade thrived along with sepulchral monuments, mausolea and melancholy. Displays of black crape and plumes were public badges of mourning. Both the living and dead populations of the metropolis increased. Body-snatching Resurrection Men provided corpses to medical students. During Widow Victoria’s reign, cemetery landscaping flourished from Highgate to West Norwood. For a while, cremation seemed ideal. As the 20th century came to an end, Arnold supposes, “the stiff upper lip gave way to the bleeding heart.” The author offers brief biographies of a few notable graveyard residents and notes the last rites of rich and famous Britons from Elizabeth I to Princess Diana. Nor does she neglect the less elaborate means employed to dispose of poor people’s corpses through the ages.

From plague-pit burial to grand heraldic cortege, a straightforward memento mori.