A Victorian guide to checking out in style

December 1, 2000

Those Victorians really knew how to say goodbye, says James Stevens Curl, as he unearths Victorian attitudes to death in the run up to next month's centenary of Queen Victoria's demise.

People are often surprised that anyone is interested in cemeteries, funeral monuments, the ephemera of mourning and the terrific paraphernalia of the 19th-century celebration of death. Curiosity about the subject and its ramifications is regarded almost as a perversion and airily dismissed as "morbid", "abnormal" or "weird". This is very strange, for every creature that is born must die. Death is everywhere, yet contemporary Britain all too often continues to suppress its grief and deny this: there seems to be no universally acceptable framework within which feelings may be expressed.

Yet disasters, massacres and tragedies are treated almost as entertainment. Something very unpleasant is going on: death is now experienced vicariously as the reality of it becomes unfamiliar. In some instances, the sudden deaths of individuals have induced something rather like mawkish mass hysteria, regardless of the fact that the public personae involved appear largely to have been creations of the image-makers. This phenomenon has been accompanied by a process of semi-deification or bogus beatification that has been as unnerving as it has been distasteful. Religion is a dynamic force: a decline in orthodox religion has called forth demons.

During the 1960s, it became apparent that, despite the efforts of a few intrepid souls, the enormous legacy left to us by the Victorians, was grotesquely undervalued by a bigoted and ignorant public, and that the part of the legacy associated with death was not only not valued, but derided and in great danger. Research, therefore, began on the vast residue of the Victorian celebration of death, and writings were published that were among the first to show the architectural, artistic, cultural, historical and social importance of 19th-century cemeteries, their buildings and monuments. The more we looked at the topic, the more fascinating that history became.

The Victorian age was one of expansion, inquiry, reform, idealism, invention, entrepreneurial endeavour and much more. But it was as an age of urbanisation that it has perhaps impinged most on the collective consciousness. By far the most startling statistic is that at the beginning of Victoria's reign in 1837, just over 17 per cent of the population lived in London or in urban centres of 100,000 or more inhabitants. By the end of her reign, in 1901, about 77 per cent of the 36 million inhabitants of Great Britain lived in urban areas. Concentrations of people in towns and cities brought immense problems, not least those concerned with hygiene.

Disposal of the dead in populous areas exercised many. Although the provision of large cemeteries began a decade or so before 1837, they became widespread during the following decades, and quickly assumed a major place in sanitary reform, or what some have likened to the potty-training of the urban masses. Yet the concerns with cleanliness are only part of the story. Had the Victorians dealt with the disposal of the dead in purely utilitarian terms, they would not have created remarkable landscaped cemeteries, splendid mausolea and noble monuments. This tends to be overlooked, and the functional aspects of 19th-century thanatology emphasised at the expense of sentiment.

The necessity of creating cemeteries that were unattached to churches and outside built-up areas became clear. Urban churchyards and vaults under churches were overcrowded and foul, and many complained about them. Reform came about in a curious way, as some English landscaped gardens (such as The Leashowes in Worcestershire and Stowe in Buckinghamshire) featured monuments to the dead as garden ornaments. This type of jardin anglais was further transformed, notably in France and Germany, in the second half of the 18th century. The catalysts were the "Graveyard Poets", especially Edward Young. Young's Night Thoughts , in the 1740s, was a runaway success and was translated into every European language. The French and German translations had an enormous impact on the Enlightenment, Romanticism and the Sturm und Drang phase of the Aufklärung . Furthermore, Young's poem was a key influence on movements to be found in cemeteries. In Night III (1742), Young set down a true event, the death of a young Englishwoman and the difficulties of disposing of her "heretic" body because of restrictions imposed by the Roman Catholic clergy. Eventually, Young secured a "stolen grave" (one already occupied), and described the gloom and horror of a stealthy burial in the darkness of a burial ground at midnight.

This episode struck all sorts of horrified chords among free-thinking, enlightened Frenchmen who began to demonstrate their lack of bigotry and their humanitarian ideals by burying Protestants ("heretics") in their own gardens and raising monuments above their graves. The most celebrated such grave was that of J. J. Rousseau (1778) on the Ile des Peupliers in the Elysee of the garden at Ermenonville. Where bodies could not be obtained, cenotaphs were created: the tomb had entered the garden. But a memorial could have more impact if associated with a real body.

Various themes coalesced, so that when the disgusting burial grounds in Paris were cleared in the 1780s, there were already examples in place that led to the establishment of the great cemetery at P re Lachaise (1804), which proved to be the model for many large landscaped cemeteries on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the earliest of these were St James's Cemetery, Liverpool (1825-29 - comprehensively vandalised by a philistine local authority in the 1960s), the Glasgow Necropolis (a stunning "City of the Dead", opened in 1832), Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1831), and Kensal Green Cemetery, London (1832-33).

The establishment of these pleasant, even beautiful, garden cemeteries was no doubt encouraged by the various epidemics of Asiatic cholera that ravaged the western world from 1831. Overcrowded burial grounds, described as "dangerous masses of corruption", injurious to the living, could not cope with the numerous corpses, and indeed were regarded as contributory factors to "atmospheric impurity" because of foul "miasmas" escaping from the graveyards. Such "miasmas" were perceived as the cause of outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.

Garden cemeteries provided the models for Victorian modes of interment - properly run, decently planted "to absorb deleterious gases" and embellished with monuments and mausolea. No 19th-century town or city was regarded as able to function properly without one.

If cemeteries had been merely responses to urban crises, however, they would not have been laid out with such care to double as arboreta and botanic gardens. Abney Park Cemetery, London (opened in the 1840s), for example, was celebrated for its remarkably varied planting, all specimens being labelled for educational purposes. Cemeteries were aids to education, providing instruction in architecture and sculpture, botany, biography, elevating thought, morals, taste and much more: in short, they were seen as a powerful means of raising the tone of society.

So it was not only a question of adapting the English landscaped garden as a place of burial, but also of catering for a new tenderness towards the dead that evolved during the Romantic movement and the religious revival of the 1830s. In the new cemeteries, whole families could be reunited in death, and cemetery real estate could be acquired near the graves of the aristocracy while even royal princes could become neighbours in death (as at Kensal Green).

Victorian funeral processions were considerable spectacles. The awesome state funeral of the duke of Wellington in 1852 involved designs by Charles Cockerell, no less, for the lying-in-state at Chelsea Hospital and the mighty funeral car. The funeral ceremonies of humbler individuals could also be impressive affairs and certain funerals could become great public events.

When Prince Albert died in 1861, there was a massive outpouring of decorous grief and public commemoration, including the erection of many monuments. His entombment in the specially built mausoleum at Frogmore followed the tradition in his native Germany. Queen Victoria was not to join the prince in the tomb until 1901, after a sumptuous military funeral attended by a vast bevy of European royalty. It was with that great national spectacle, including the passage by sea from the Isle of Wight, that the true Victorian celebration of death ended.

Compared with the inventiveness, robustness and often poignantly beautiful way in which the Victorians responded to bereavement (including ephemera such as mourning clothes, mourning jewellery, accessories, appropriate black-edged stationery and an etiquette that helped to protect the bereaved from unwanted intrusion), the inadequacies of today's rituals (or lack of them) depress with their banalities: they have added new terrors to death.

James Stevens Curl is professor of architectural history and senior research fellow at Queen's University, Belfast. His book, The Victorian Celebration of Death , is published by Sutton Publishing, price £20.

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