Moorgate Cemetery

Victorian Death

(contributed by Helen Swift)

Victorian Funeral CarriagePeople don’t just dispose of their dead. They lay them to rest in ways that reflect their hopes, fears and beliefs. What remains of the material culture of death tells us about the lives of people in the past, how they thought about themselves, the world and the people around them.

The funeral trade of the 19th century had no union of trade organisation that regulated practices and their reputation was as poor as it was 150 years previous. Poorer people were thrown into financial ruin when they got the bill.

Because of incidents involving body snatching to provide subject for the anatomy schools, a sort of hysteria arose and people became preoccupied with making sure their loved ones were not disturbed. Locking iron coffins were made, which were airtight to prevent their loved ones being in contact with the earth. Cemetery charges were higher for iron coffins because they took a long time to decay before other burials could be added to the plot. By the end of the 19th century there was a large variety of coffins in many different materials. Concerns for the shortage of space available for burial led to the introduction of biodegradable coffins to alleviate overcrowding in burial grounds, but these proved unpopular.

Coffins were seen as status symbols. People who died on the parish, meaning in the workhouse, were often buried without any identification. Their loved ones were prevented from adding a cheap tin plate carrying their name to the cheap coffin provided by the workhouse bosses. This was seen as a further punishment for being poor – that they were not deserving of being identified by name.

Campaigners for improvement were inspired by the public cemeteries of Sweden, Italy and France. The Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris was the epitome of design with wide avenues, beautiful planting and contrived vistas. It was considered morally uplifting to promenade through the cemetery, particularly for the young who could contemplate their fate and improve their soul.

Many English cemeteries were built on the outskirts of the town and often had areas of unconsecrated ground for nonconformists, as it was thought that demand would be high. There are however a large number of nonconformists buried in Anglican graveyards. Many cemeteries were established as commercial ventures some ending up in financial trouble. The municipal cemetery operated by town councils were more common.

In 1843 J C Loudon published a book on how to lay out, plant and manage a cemetery, which encouraged improvement in their design. He advocated constructing lots of paths leading to nice views, the planting of juniper and cypress alongside native trees. These designs also influenced the design of crematoriums.

Monuments in the 18th and 19th Centuries moved away from representing the worldly fame of the deceased to become moral lessons, stressing the individuality of the dead and their relationships with the living.

The driving force of monument design was the need for individual commemoration – only one stone was suitable for one person as people were now seen as unique and their personal relationships were more important.

The Victorian Gothic Revival favoured monuments of the decorated style, which were seen as more appropriate by the church. These took over from the Greek and Roman classical style of monument, which the church thought on as being pagan.

Pedestal tombs became a common feature in the 19th century in both cemeteries and graveyards, because they took up less room. They are tall, usually square in cross section and are sometimes highly decorated with scrolls and angels. They are topped with urns and obelisks. The growing interest in antiquity produced popular forms such as the pyramid. Mausoleums are built in general cemeteries by wealthy families in a range of styles.

Architects took advantage of the pattern books issued in monthly parts, which contained hundred of designs. Some copied medieval forms and had samples of lettering and suitable epitaphs. One of the greatest achievements of these pattern books was to encourage the use of local stones, completely at odds with the cemetery companies who were pushing the use of pre-carved white marble monuments cheaply imported from Carrara in Italy. These foreign monuments were made in many styles but tended to be figurative or crosses often aping a rustic design made to look like tree branches. Anchors, ropes, open books or large scrolls were popular forms. The figurative types tended to be angels or cherubs with crosses or statutes of Christ as the good shepherd.

The desire to be different in the 19th century has been condemned by some art historians for the combination of many styles they used. These monuments, however can tell us something about what people though about their lives, the importance of their family, how attitudes to death changed.

It is assumed that big monuments were put up for the rich and the smaller monuments for the poor. This is not true. People wanted to mark the death of a loved one and they could find novel solutions to cope with a shortage of cash. Some people threw themselves into extreme poverty to provide a decent funeral and monument. Others grouped together to form burial clubs and friendly societies, which operated a bit like the guilds.

The issues concerning monuments are many and very complex. You can’t generalise it and it tends to be very specific to the area you are looking at. One thing is certain you can tell a lot about the population and what they thought about life and death by looking at the stones they leave behind. Stones are often about how people wanted to be represented but might not be entirely literal. People can use a monument and a funeral service to enhance or project a social status that they might not have. There is nothing accidental about putting up a monument. They are carefully chosen and specific to the individual.

A massive amount of material is being lost every day. Monuments are being vandalised and removed or laid down by the authorities, so next time you walk past a church yard or cemetery give them a look before they are gone.