Raising the dead

Just outside the City’s northern boundary on City Road you will find Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, where office workers go to eat their lunch. Here in this little oasis of tranquillity the small path traversing the graveyard appears to have sunk below ground level.

In the middle of the 19th century London’s population was buried into just 218 acres; and when poet William Blake died in 1827 and was buried at Bunhill Fields.

[A]long with 120,000 other individuals, Blake was placed on top of three others; later four more were placed on top of him. Where the National Gallery now stands on the north side of Trafalgar Square was once the burial ground of St Martin’s-in-the-Fields church, about the size of a bowling green interred within it were 70,000 bodies.

In 1859 it was decided to clear the crypt of its thousands of bodies (the underground space is now a rather good, if not creepy restaurant) and the exhumed bodies were lost to posterity. Among them are furniture makes Thomas Chippendale; royal mistress Nell Gwyn; scientist Robert Boyle; painter Nicholas Hilliard; and the original Winston Churchill father of the first Duke of Marlborough.

The City church’s main income came from burials, at the Eron Baptist Church, now the site of London School of Economics, 12,000 bodies were interred in its cellar in just 19 years. It was a rare service in which several worshipers didn’t faint from the smell of rotting flesh.

No one in their right mind would go to Bunhill Fields graveyard to witness a burial; apart from the sight of the odd decaying limb the putrid smell was downright dangerous.

A Dr Walker testified to a Parliamentary inquiry that graveyard workers before disturbing a coffin would drill a hole in the side, insert a tube, and burn off the escaping gases, for “to inhale this gas undiluted with atmospheric air, is instant death”, the committee solemnly later reported.

The problem was solved in Victorian London with suburban cemeteries, site on sandy or gravel soils, allowing the bodies to decompose naturally. In 1843 John Claudues Loudon published a guide to these new cemeteries, which essentially were parks. Three were built, unfortunately he could not avail himself of their benefits, dying before his idea was put into action.

While Londoners nowadays might go to a football match at weekends, Victorian’s weekend recreational activity was to stroll, take the air (if that was the right phrase) and have a picnic beside their deceased family member’s mortal remains.

London Necropolis Terminus By 1854 the impressively named London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company had a dedicated private railway station near Waterloo to their cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey, offering three classes of funeral service and two stations one for Anglicans and the other for non-conformists, railway workers dubbed it the ‘Stiffs Express’. All there is now to show for this Victorian enterprise is the sad entrance pictured.

So as you chomp into your brie and rocket on wholemeal sandwich courtesy of Prêt a Manger while strolling in Bunhill Fields look for the grave of Dame Mary Pace (pictured above) who died 4th March 1728 and ‘In 67 months she was tap’d 66 times. Had taken away 240 gallons of water; Without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation’. And thank you lucky starts it’s the 21st century.

3 thoughts on “Raising the dead”

  1. We pass the City Road gates of Bunhill nearly every working day and a few months back I went in for a brief photographic visit, being surprised at the number of famous names I found therein.
    The name “Bunhill” of course derives from “Bone Hill”, in honour of the fact that soil erosion often revealed the contents of the shallow graves.
    I do not know how many old cemeteries there are in London that have been cleared of gravestones (often by leaning them against the walls where these exist) and turned into parks. They make welcome oases of calm where on fine days people can sit and eat their lunch or stroll along the paths enjoying the plants and wildlife.
    They are a valuable addition to the city’s all-too-small supply of green spaces.


    1. Small parish churches often have the gravestones stacked against the parameter wall as a result over overcrowding. My friend’s church doesn’t have a graveyard as with many modern places of worship, more’s the pity


  2. I need to amend my comment above regarding the derivation of the name “Bunhill”. I had read that it came to be called “Bone Hill” as a result of elicit burials in shallow graves becoming uncovered by the weather etc. However, according to that excellent reference The London Encyclopaedia by Weinreb et al., this area was known as Bone Hill before it was ever used for burials. Why it was so called thus still remains to be elucidated.


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