Victorian Cemeteries and
Funerary Monuments

In 1800 the population of London was 1 million. By 1850 it had gone up to 2.3 million. Among other shortages caused by rapid population growth, there was a lack of space to bury the dead. Up to that time people had been buried primarily in church graveyards, but London graveyards simply ran out of space. There were instances of body snatching, bodies left out to rot or not buried deep enough (at least two feet), and bodies cleared from graves too soon.

In 1832 Parliament passed a bill encouraging the establishment of seven private cemeteries in a ring around outer London, to provide ample space for burial. These are known today as the Magnificent Seven. The first to open, in 1832, was Kensal Green, followed by West Norwood (1837), Highgate Cemetery (1839), Nunhead (1840), Brompton (1840), Abney Park (1840), and Tower Hamlets (1841),

The Magnificent Seven appealed in particular to the newly emerging middle class, keen to distance itself from the working class and to present to the public its social status. Graves were seen as a public extension to the family’s property, and cemeteries such as the Magnificent Seven provided a secure, well-maintained, costly place for families to establish permanent monuments to themselves – an immortality of sorts.

.The cemetery in Falling Angels is based on Highgate Cemetery (see which is considered the finest of the seven cemeteries for its landscaping and unusual funerary architecture. Features include an area of family vaults based around a Cedar of Lebanon, as well as an "Egyptian Avenue" of vaults, complete with obelisks and lotus-flower columns

Victorian graves tended to be much more elaborate than modern graves. It was expected that a middle-class family would spend as much as it could afford on a monument appropriate to the deceased’s (and the family’s) social status. Monuments were usually symbolic – either religious (crosses, angels, the letters IHS, a monogram for Jesus Savior of Man in Greek), symbols of profession (whip and horseshoes for a coach driver, swords for a general, palette for a painter), or symbols of death.

The most common symbols of death were:
.urns – classical symbol of Roman cremation. Romans used to take the cremated remains, place them in an urn and cover them with a shroud.

wreaths – symbol of eternal life, as it’s circular (with no beginning and no end) and made of evergreens (never turn brown, so never die).

broken columns – classical symbol of life cut short.

upside-down torches – the inverted torch symbolizes death, the burning flame (which normally would be extinguished when the torch was turned upside-down) symbolizes the flame of eternal life and the Christian belief in resurrection.

grieving women – classical symbol of a woman dressed in loose (Roman) robes, physically exhausted from weeping, and leaning on her hand, sometimes on an urn or a cross.

obelisks – Egyptian symbol of eternal life.

A pagan symbol for a Christian society

.Curiously, many of the monuments in Victorian cemeteries are not actually Christian, but rather pagan – classical (Roman) or Egyptian. Christianity in 19th-century Britain was predominantly Church of England (Protestant), but with worrying challenges from various Protestant sects (Methodists, Presbyterians) as well as a movement towards "High" Anglicanism – incorporating elements of Catholicism into the Church of England.

What Victorians put on their graves sometimes reflected their religious positions – though in counter-intuitive ways. For instance, some Church of Englanders felt that a cross was too Catholic a symbol, and reacted by deliberately using non-Christian symbols such as columns or urns on their graves. Gothic architecture was also considered by some to be linked to the Catholic Church. However, Egyptian architecture was not linked with any Christian movements, and so was popular with everyone.

Slipping standards

.Victorian cemeteries such as the Magnificent Seven reached the height of their popularity between about 1860 and 1880. Although they were still very fashionable (and profitable) for a long time after, the mania of the grand Victorian mourning spectacle turned a corner. Sensible people began to protest about the crippling cost of funerals, monuments and mourning clothes; others concerned with public health and urban space were exploring the alternative of cremation. The public too were exasperated with Queen Victoria’s obsessive mourning of her husband to the extent that she had become a kind of absentee queen, rarely making public appearances.

Edward VII’s succession in 1901 underlined a change in attitudes, as the world began to open out, psychologically as well as physically. But it was World War I that finally put the nail in the coffin of Victorian mourning. So many young men died for what seemed senseless reasons that Christian faith – and with it attitudes to death and mortality – was shaken to the core. The fallen men were lost or buried in France, and suddenly Victorian monuments seemed overblown, monstrous, and inappropriate. Almost overnight, lavish displays for the dead disappeared.

.Of course, people still had to be buried. Cemeteries like Highgate had plenty of funerals. But people spent less on them, and on the monuments – which were usually bought at the mason’s yard run by the cemetery. With less income, staff had to be laid off, and the others were concentrated on the business of burying. Trees and ivy slowly strangled the prized landscape design; burrowing roots toppled monuments. All of this took time, but those cemeteries, once boastful displays of wealth and status, are now overgrown stone junkyards, with the odd jewel shining through the ivy.

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