“My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
Crazy Horse, Chief of the Sioux Tribe
Without having done any specific research on the matter, it is difficult to pinpoint the time where the need for a permanent memorial to oneself after death began to become a necessity for the vast majority of the population of England. What is clear, however, is that in their silent permanence, their desire to display something of themselves, and implicitly, their culture, the dead have always shaped our understanding of the history of this nation. Indeed, our main understanding of our cultural connection with Scandinavia comes from the Sutton Hoo grave site from which I take my likeness. Furthermore, some of our finest poets have set, composed or used burying grounds as inspiration for their works: see for example Thomas Gray’s masterful ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard‘. It is clear that alongside our recognised annual remembrance of those troops who have laid down their lives in battle for this nation, the simple, silent beauty of the graveyard is an unspoken, seldom recognised part of who we are as a nation.
A stroll through any of England’s windswept graveyards, cemeteries or crematoria provides an unparalleled insight into the beliefs of our forebearers and a solemn reminder of the fate of even the strongest bonds of this life. But, charming as any village churchyard or as poignant as the pale cenotaphs of every English hamlet are, I have always been fascinated by London’s graveyards.
One of the most fascinating of these is the City of London Cemetery and Crematorium. On the outskirts of multicultural Newham, it is a vast, sprawling site, containing the permanent resting places of in excess of 150,000 Londoners. The Cemetery stands in the centre of this brave new world as an enduring testament to those who entrusted it with their mortal remains.
As the product of the reforming instincts of the mid-1800s, the site was intended to cope with the huge numbers of people who had not only moved into the City of London itself, but also with the population explosion in the local area. The London Borough of Newham reflect that
“… in the 1850s West Ham’s population was less than 20,000, with nearly 4,000 acres of farmland. East Ham was even more rural with only 2,000 residents. By the early 1900s less than 200 acres of agricultural land remained. By 1901 the population was 363,000 and in 1921 it was 444,000.”
The site itself is- in keeping with the other Victorian structures provided for the living- a grand monument to the philosophy of its time…
… and so vast in its expanse that there are road names within the Cemetery itself. Several Chapels are dotted about the site, including this one:
Individual graves carry messages and epitaphs that are either wistful and complimentary, such as this lavish headstone…
… or acutely sad. Thanks to my companion on the visit, noted magician Sean Smith, I came across this headstone…
… the epitaph proudly declaring a pride that would later be called into question by noted war poet, Wilfred Owen, in his poem of the same title.
The sheer volume of memorials, ranging from family vaults…
… to fleets of mourning angels…
… to paths lined with sculpted headstones (and some more ostentatious still)…
… is absolutely staggering. What is still more amazing is that the Cemetery contains the vast majority of the evacuated dead of the City itself.
In my blog from yesterday I featured one case in which a London church has had its dead forcibly removed in the name of progress, and in the first part of this series on the Churches of the City of London I alluded to how the arrangement and architecture of the present-day City implied that
“… the only way to atone for the sins and for the squalor of ages is to evacuate humans themselves.”
It seems this subliminal message holds some truth. By the mid-1800s, the graveyards of the City’s churches were overcrowded, massively unsanitary, and actually thought to be spreading disease through poor drainage of burial grounds. A wholescale clearing of Churches and their graveyards was undertaken, after the passing of the Union of Benefices Act 1860, and local men of God were responsible for overseeing the re-burial of masses of the City’s dead in the City of London Graveyard and Cemetery, the new municipal facility that boasted a huge area and good drainage. All across the site, these dead are buried in mass graves, hailing from Churches including St. James, Duke Place, St. Helen Bishopsgate, St. Martin Outwich and St. Mary Somerset & St. Mary Mounthaw. All four mass graves are sited in one area of one road on the site…
Touring Cemeteries is often a humbling experience. In this particular instance, when walking down the long streets of the dead, and one casts one’s eyes over the many hundreds of graves, it is easy to recall the musing of Dante’s Hell, Canto III:
“… such a long stream of people that I should have never believed that death had undone so many.”
It must be remembered, however, that the places where we bury our dead are sacred not only to the memory of the individuals themselves, but as a constant reminder of the lives we lead, and have led for so many thousands of years in our country. The transience of their existence, their long after-life as words on stone, their eternal movement through the seasons, their treatment by the living – and perhaps most importantly of all – their sacrifices, their suffering and their joys should galvanise us, and remind us of the long and storied history of our capital city.
I rest in the hope that one bright day
Sunshine will burst through these prisons of clay
And old Gabriel’s trumpet and the voice of the Lord
Will wake up the dead in the old churchyard.