"That the state of the old churchyards in this country, down to the middle of the nineteenth century, was a public scandal and disgrace, is a remark which applies especially to London, where burial-grounds, packed full of human remains, were still made available for interments on a large scale until 1850 or later. The fact was the more discreditable in contrast with the known example of Paris, which had, as early as 1765, closed all the city graveyards, and established cemeteries beyond the suburbs. One of the laws passed at the same time by the Parliament of Paris directed that the graves in the cemeteries should not be marked with stones, and that all epitaphs and inscriptions should be placed on the walls, a regulation which appears to have been greatly honoured in the breach. In 1776 Louis XVI., recognizing the benefit which Paris had derived from the city decree, prohibited graveyards in all the cities and towns of France, and rendered unlawful interments in churches and chapels; and in 1790 the National Assembly passed an Act commanding that all the old burial-grounds, even in the villages, should be closed, and others provided at a distance from habitations. Other States of Europe took pattern by these enlightened proceedings, and America was not slow in making laws upon the subject; but Great Britain, and its worst offender, London, went on in the old way, without let or hindrance, until 1850, For fifteen years prior to that date there had been in progress an agitation against the existing order of things, led by Dr. G.A. Walker, a Drury Lane surgeon, living in a very nest of churchyard fevers, who wrote a book and several pamphlets, delivered public lectures, and raised a discussion in the public press. The London City Corporation petitioned Parliament in 1842 for the abolition of burials within the City, and a Select Committee of the House of Commons was at once entrusted with an enquiry on the subject.
|Disappearing 1930's Kerb graves |
© Godric Godricson
In the same year (1842) a Export was presented to Parliament by the Select Committee on "The Improvement of the Health of Towns," and especially on "The Effect of the Interment of Bodies in Towns." Its purport may be summed up in the following quotation:
"The evidence ... gives a loathsome picture of the unseemly and demoralizing practices which result from the crowded condition of the existing graveyards—practices which could scarcely have been thought possible in the present state of society.... We cannot arrive at any other conclusion than that the nuisance of interments in great towns and the injury arising to the health of the community are fully proved."
Among the witnesses examined were Sir Benjamin Brodie and Dr. G.R. Williams. In 1846 a Bill was prepared to deal with the matter, but it was not until 1850 that an Act was passed "To make better provision for the Interment of the Dead in and near the Metropolis." Powers were conferred upon the General Board of Health to establish cemeteries or enlarge burial-grounds, and an Order in Council was made sufficient for closing any of the old churchyards either wholly or with exceptions to be stipulated in the order. One month's notice was all that was needed to set the Act in operation, and in urgent cases seven days; but it was found necessary in 1851 to pass another Act for the purpose of raising funds; and in 1852 a more stringent Act was put upon the Statute Book to deal summarily with the churchyards. This was, in the the following session, extended to England and Wales, the General Board of Health having reported strongly in favour of a scheme for "Extra-mural Sepulture" in the country towns, declaring that the graveyards of these places were in no better condition than those of London.
|Pentney in the snow|
© Godric Godricson
Consequently, in the years which followed 1850, a general closing of churchyards took place throughout the Metropolis, and to a lesser extent throughout the kingdom, and an active crusade against all similar burial-grounds was instituted, which may be said to be still in operation. The substitution of new cemeteries in remote and mostly picturesque places was of immediate advantage in many ways, but it did little or nothing to remedy the dilapidated appearance of the old graveyards, which indeed, now that they brought in no revenues, became in many cases painfully neglected, dejected, and forlorn. Happily, in 1883, the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association was established, and its influence has been very marked in the improvement of the old enclosures and their conversion into recreation grounds. The Metropolitan Board of Works, the London County Council, the City Corporation, public vestries, and private persons, have shared in the good work, but the chief instrument has been the Public Gardens Association.
Of old burial-grounds now open as public gardens in the London district there are more than a hundred. Care is always taken to preserve the sacred soil from profane uses, games being prohibited, and the improvements confined to paths and seats, levelling the ground and planting with trees and flowers. The gravestones, though removed to the sides of the enclosure, are numbered and scheduled, and all in which any living person can claim an interest are left untouched. No stones are ever destroyed in the process of reformation, but previous ill-usage and natural decay have rendered very many of them illegible, and in another century or so all these once fond memorials will probably have become blank and mute.
|Pentney in the snow|
© Godric Godricson
To the middle of the nineteenth century may also be assigned the change which we now see in the character of our gravestones. Quite in the beginning of the century the vulgar and grotesque carvings and Scriptural barbarisms of the eighteenth century had given place to a simple form of memorial in which it was rare to find the least effort at ornament; but, as soon as the Burial Acts were passed and the old churchyards were succeeded by the new cemeteries, the tasteful and elegant designs which are to be seen in every modern burial-ground were introduced, founded in great measure upon the artistic drawings of Mr. D.A. Clarkson, whose manifold suggestions, published in 1852, are still held in the highest admiration".
Project Gutenburg : GRAVESTONES OLD AND CURIOUS.
With One Hundred and Two Illustrations BY W. T. VINCENT