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How London Dealt With Too Many Reeking Corpses

DeathsDoor
May 28, 2016
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How London Dealt With Too Many Reeking Corpses, Not Enough Graves, And Fear Of Disease

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By the mid-19th century, Londoners widely believed that the improper burial of the dead spread sickness through a miasma expunged by rotting bodies.

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By the 19th century, London had already run out of space for its dead. Outbreaks of Bubonic Plague filled churchyard cemeteries to the point of overflowing and cremation wasn’t a common practice yet. As a result, many victims were thrown into mass plague pits around the city.

The Smell Of Rot

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Burial fees contributed to the income of London’s clergymen, who might overlook unorthodox burial practices to earn extra money. A particularly notorious example of this was in 1822 at Enon Chapel, where Minister W. Howse put some bodies in the sewer and filled the bottom floor of the church to the roof with the rest. Howse improperly buried some 12,000 people. The smell of rotting corpses below the floor was so foul that parishioners sometimes passed out.

Miasma Theory

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Citizens were warned of a miasma that was supposedly produced by corpses. This miasma consisted of particles that could infect those who inhaled it with various diseases. As a result, some health reformers began attacking urban graveyards as a source of epidemics. Bodies were also said to be explosive, and sextons of churches were advised to periodically tap coffins to release pent up gases.

Threat Of Cadaverous Vapours

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George Alfred Walker, sometimes referred to as “Graveyard Walker” was a surgeon who believed that “cadaverous vapours” were poisoning London’s population. A number of prominent physicians of the day suggested that there was a link between corpse miasma and typhoid or cholera.

The Death Pyramid

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One businessman named Thomas Wilson proposed a massive pyramid structure as a solution to London’s corpse problem in 1829. Had it been built according to his plans, it would have stood 94 stories tall and dwarfed St. Paul’s Cathedral. The plan was to fund the pyramid through subscriptions and manage it via a corporation called the Pyramid General Cemetery Company. Unsurprisingly, officials elected to build Highgate Cemetery in 1839 instead.

Metropolitan Interments Act

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After the Cholera epidemic of 1848 and 1849 killed nearly 15,000 people, London’s burial issue became a full-on crisis. The 1850 Metropolitan Interments Act was passed to prevent further burials in overcrowded areas. The Act aimed to build larger, national cemeteries outside of London.

London’s Necropolis

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While the negotiations over the future of London burials were ongoing, an alternative proposal was being drawn up by Richard Broun and Richard Sprye, who wanted to build a necropolis capable of holding 28,500,000 bodies. After several setbacks, the original plans for the London Necropolis eventually became Brookwood Cemetery, the largest burial ground in the world when it opened in 1854.

The Death Train

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One proposal at this time was that these national cemeteries should be located along major railway lines. The London Necropolis Railway opened in 1854 as a means of carrying mourners and bodies to the new Brookwood Cemetery. The railway would operate until 1941, when it was badly damaged during a German air raid.

Building The Underground

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When the London Underground was constructed, workers were supposedly forced to diverge on the trajectory of the Piccalilli Line because they couldn’t chip their way through the dense number of remains from one of the plague pits.

A Future On Top Of The Past

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Bodies still crop up during construction projects across the city. In 2015, excavations began on a mass grave of approximately 3,000 skeletons by the Liverpool Street Station. The bodies were part of Bedlam burial ground, a 16th century cemetery established in response to the plague.