Maybe it’s not the cheeriest of subjects but as another birthday approached my thoughts turned to immortality – or rather the lack of it – and so I planned to write about some of the history of cemeteries and burial grounds, and more importantly how their use and value has changed so that, apart from their obvious use, they have also become some of our most important historic parks and landscapes.
A measure of their significance, especially to the urban landscape, is that when I checked our database it gave me over 400 ‘hits’ ranging from Abbey Cemetery in Bath to the York Cemetery Trust.
Of course, I should have known that somebody would already have done a simple and succinct history of burial grounds and their changing role better: in this case it was English Heritage in a well illustrated report called Paradise Preserved that was published in 2002.
It’s available as a free download at:
John Claudius Loudon, the great Victorian garden writer, designer and theorist, merits a lengthy mention in it because he was the first to write at length about cemetery design. That might sound a bit strange: after all a cemetery is surely simply a place to bury our dead and shouldn’t require much designing. In fact the layout and planting of cemeteries has been a matter of considerable debate since the 17th century.
John Evelyn, for example, argued “that there none so fitt places to bury in, than our Groves and Gardens, where our Graves may bedecked with…fragrant flowers… verdures, & perenniall plants, the most naturall Hieroglyphicks of our future Resurrection and Immortalitie; besides what they will conduce to meditation…and we might worthily declaime against our Custome of interring our dead in the body of our churches, as both undecent [&] unhealthy.” [Elysium Britannicum, p.157].
Meanwhile his friend Christopher Wren suggested something much more formal. Burials should be “in Cemeteries seated in the Out-skirts of the Town… This being inclosed with a strong Brick Wall, and having a Walk round, and two cross Walks, decently planted with Yew-trees, the four Quarters may serve four Parishes, where the Dead need not be disturbed at the Pleasure of the Sexton, or piled four or five upon one another, or Bones thrown out to gain Room.” [Letter of advice to the Commissioners for Building Fifty New City Churches, 1711]
By the early 19th century most urban churchyards were a scandal. Graves were constantly re-used, bodies not properly buried, bones often lying scattered around, and to make matters worse body-snatching was rife. As the Penny Magazine of August 2nd 1832 noted: “There are many church-yards in which the soil has been raised by several feet above the level of the adjoining street by the continual accumulation of mortal matter; and there are others in which the ground is actually probed with a borer before a grave is opened! Many tons of human bones are sent each year from London to the north, where they are crushed in mills contrived for the purpose, and used as manure.” See more on this at:
For those of you interested in such things – which I suspect is most of us secretly – there is an excellent -and witty -analysis of 18th/19th century pauper burials in London by Jeremy Boulton. Called “How to be duckfood” its available as a downloadable powerpoint presentation: Howtobeduckfood
Parliament was driven to act. It legislated to allow the construction of new burial grounds by both private companies and local authorities, outside the built-up areas, and eventually closed many churchyards for further burials. And all the time the debate on the design of the new burial spaces was still raging.
But what had this got to do with Loudon?
In 1813 Loudon had undertaken an extraordinary journey. In the midst of the Napoleonic wars, and in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous French retreat from Moscow he had set out to cross the continent and visited Poland, before going along the Baltic coast to St Petersburg and then moving on to Moscow. Apart from the obvious horrors of seeing countless unburied soldiers rotting in roadside ditches, he explains in the Preface to On the Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries and on the Improvement of Churchyards which was eventually published in 1843, that…
As a result he set down his own ideas in print, firstly in his own journal, The Gardener’s Magazine, and then in his book which is available to read or download at:
Loudon was a practical man with a great concern for efficiency, morality and ‘taste’. His ideas for improving cemetery design were usually extremely down to earth [if that isn’t too awful a pun].
They included ‘burial boards’ [streamlined ways of getting coffins into the ground – & if that intrigues you then see pp. 31-36 for more details], better drainage and ventilation systems [think about it], the outsourcing of monument making from expensive city masons to those in rural and stone quarrying areas, and even more mundane things such as better ways of keeping records of burials in ledgers.
But for Loudon the practical went hand in hand with the aesthetic and he also suggested a range of ‘geometric’ layouts for burials, as can be seen in this illustration from the book. Planting was critical too: note his mention on the page shown above of Abney Park in Hackney. This was the first arboretum cemetery, laid out in the former 18thc landscape gardens of two suburban villas, but when the cemetery was opened it was according to Loudon, “highly ornamented” since it was planted out with virtually the entire content of Loddiges’ nursery catalogue. [Actually that’s hardly surprising since George Loddiges was a shareholder in the company and organised the planting].
But Loudon wasn’t content with making positive suggestions. He liked to ladle out the criticisms too and in his usual trenchant style. For example he condemns the “practice of exposing the coffins to view in catacombs” as “disgusting … and dangerous to the living” because of the “suffocating effects of the effluvia of decomposition”. Amongst other unpleasant side effects – such as exploding bodies [see page 4 of the book for the macabre details] he thinks this is why grave diggers always have “pale and ghastly countenances.” Burial in this manner – “the disgusting boxing up of dead bodies, in defiance of the laws of nature” is not “in good taste”, should be heavily taxed and not allowed under any place of public assembly.
Catacombs had become newly fashionable. Our database lists 23 cemetery sites that had them, including Birmingham’s Warstone Lane, Anfield in Liverpool, Church Cemetery Nottingham and the General Cemeteries in Manchester, and Sheffield as well as most of the major London ones – Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton, Nunhead, Norwood and Kensal Green. Some were commercially successful while others like those in St Bartholomew’s Churchyard in Exeter were a financial disaster: there, only 11 burials took place in the grand Egyptian style vaults built into the hillside, out of the more than 17500 interments there during the century the burial ground was open. It was as Loudon sharply notes”a serious drawback to the profits of the shareholders.”
But it was not just catacombs that Loudon objected to. At Norwood, one of the earliest private cemeteries, designed by William Tite for the South Metropolitan Cemetery Company and opened in 1837, there were indeed spectacular catacombs set under the Anglican chapel. They came complete with a silent hydraulic catafalque to lower the coffins through the chapel floor. For images and more details including how to visit them see:
If this wasn’t crime enough in Loudon’s eyes, the 40 acres of grounds were laid out in a naturalistic style, with glades and groves of deciduous trees.
“It is too much in the style of a common pleasure-ground, both in regard to the disposition of trees and shrubs and the kinds planted.” Loudon argued that the planting tree s in belts and clumps like this was wholly inappropriate because cemeteries do no\t “require shelter and shade; because nothing is more desirable as to have a free current of air and admit the drying influence of the sun; and because it is impracticable to form graves in clumps and belts.” Instead trees should be “scattered” singly to make the most efficient use of the land, and used to line the roadways so that shade was cast for mourners walking along them, or to form a “foreground to the scenery beyond” He even objected to the deciduous trees used “since th.ey formed light-foliaged bulky heads” preferring instead “fastigiate conical dark needle-leaved evergreens [which] shade much less ground, produce much less litter when the leaves drop, and by associations, both ancient and modern are peculiarly adapted for cemeteries.”
To make sure everyone understood he then published his own version of the cemetery company’s image. Leaving the foreground and distance untouched h.e confined his alterations to the main cemetery planting, changing deciduous trees for his preferred “dark-foliaged fastigiate and conical trees”.
Which do you prefer? Are you a person of taste and judgement? And watch out what you think or you too will be subject to Loudon’s censure since… “We do not say that everyone who compares the two pictures will prefer ours to the others, because we do not allow everyone to be a judge in this matter, but we do expect that all will ackno|wldge there is a distinctive character in our view.” He claims his approach is not only in keeping with contemporary continental design but also with the historical tradition of ‘the ancients’ who used trees like cypresses extensively in burial sites, and also of oriental cemeteries. To reinforce the point he adds images of a Chinese cemetery, although strangely one named the Vale of Tempe which is a classical site in Thessaly!
Instead he wanted cemeteries to be considered as gardens with walks laid out round them. They should either be planned like this in the first place, or existing churchyards and other burial places could be converted later. His book gives examples of where this has been done, including rather exotic ones from Turkey and Persia,
but Loudon then suggests how it was possible to create walks even in a churchyard which had not originally been laid out in a planned way.
And of course Loudon tried to put his ideas into practice….but since I have already written 2000 words the pleasure of hearing about that will have to wait until next time.