Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial

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Coffins were stacked one atop the other in foot-deep shafts, the topmost mere inches from the surface. Putrefying bodies were frequently disturbed, dismembered or destroyed to make room for newcomers. Disinterred bones, dropped by neglectful gravediggers, lay scattered amidst the tombstones; smashed coffins were sold to the poor for firewood. Clergymen and sextons turned a blind eye to the worst practices because burial fees formed a large proportion of their income. Clearance of long-buried bones had always taken place; but the growing demand for burials in crowded grounds meant the work became ever more grisly.

Sanitary reformers quite mistakenly believed that the stench from poorly interred decaying bodies was poisoning the metropolis. The practice of urban burial was touted as a profound menace to public health. Such places, however, were well beyond the means of the urban poor.

Walker believed that foul-smelling burial grounds produced much ill health in the neighbouring population. He did not deny the influence of sewers, poorly ventilated housing, and the like — but he was certain that graveyard miasma was an important, much neglected predisposing cause of disease. The key to the problem was gas emanating from rotting corpses.

The overall argument in Gatherings was that concentrated graveyard gases caused instant death in man and beast; foul-smelling grounds, constantly releasing more diffused miasma, did not produce sudden death — but they debilitated those living nearby, according to their level of exposure and individual resistance.

Walker was a skilful propagandist, adept at utilising grisly detail to grab the attention of the reader. His favourite example of malpractice was Enon Chapel, situated in slums north of the Strand. This dubious place of worship, established in the s largely as a burial speculation, contained a modest cellar in which the deceased were laid to rest in their thousands ie. Some redundant remains were dumped in a sewer that ran directly under the building. I have seen them play at what is called skittles; put up bones and take skulls and knocked them down; stick up bones in the ground and throw a skull at them as you would a skittle-ball.

The medical evidence, however, was not emphatic. James Copeland, censor of the Royal College of Physicians, stated that burial grounds were probably the most important factor in generating ill health among the poor, but focused on the effect of liquefying, decomposing bodies on local wells and water supply. The connection, in other words, seemed likely but not definite.

Others noted alternative explanations for the prevalence of fever in the slums — the stench from sewers and the general dirt.

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Distrust of stench won the day — for there was no doubting the awful aroma that arose from certain grounds. Mackinnon recommended immediate action: the prohibition of urban burial, with legislation requiring parishes or unions of parishes, as under the Poor Law to build their own large cemeteries at a safe distance from the centre of the metropolis.

If necessary, he would bring forward his own bill in parliament, recommending a penny rate to pay for new cemeteries, and a central board of health to oversee parish arrangements. Mackinnon would doggedly raise the need for legislation over the next few parliamentary sessions, only to be repeatedly rebuffed.

Walker, meanwhile, although he had hoped for more from the government, refused to be downcast. He was a remarkably determined individual and continued his campaign in letters, pamphlets, petitions and lectures. His technique was repetition, constantly assailing the public with ever more gruesome facts, recycling tales of graveyard degradations, seeking out new examples.

Corpses, Coffins, and Crypts: A History of Burial | Penny Colman Official Site

He formed a Society for the Abolition of Burial in Towns, modelled on the Health of Towns Association, which attracted a small but dedicated membership. Barbara Brenner. The Paradox of Jamestown: - James Lincoln Collier. My First Book of London. Charlotte Guillain.

The Bible. Britannica Educational Publishing. Adventurous Women. Penny Colman. Madam C. Walker: Building a Business Empire. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B.

The world is running out of burial space

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We'll publish them on our site once we've reviewed them. Continue shopping. Item s unavailable for purchase. Please review your cart. You can remove the unavailable item s now or we'll automatically remove it at Checkout. Remove FREE. Unavailable for purchase. Continue shopping Checkout Continue shopping. Chi ama i libri sceglie Kobo e inMondadori. Reasonable mausoleum owners know that you want ventilation, and not to have things sealed up.

This is why you see the occasional lawsuit where a cemetery operator has surreptitiously gone into the mausoleum and propped casket lids open a couple of inches to facilitate dehydration. That's because they know what happens. Why is that lawsuit-worthy? They went in there and did that after the family bought this sealed casket that was labeled "protective" by the funeral home.

The whole thing conspires in this strange way. A well-designed mausoleum will have the crypts themselves inclined very slightly to the rear, to a drainage pipe so that fluids that come out will be drained away discreetly. And it will be designed in such a way so that fresh air exchange is constantly coming through the crypts themselves facilitating dehydration out of a discreet vent in the back of the building. Good mausoleum architecture prevents explosions? Some aren't designed very well, and in still other cases depending on how tightly the casket is sealed or screwed down, you may have problems anyway.

Will a sealed casket always have this problem? Likely, but not always. The largest manufacturer of caskets claims that its caskets "burp. And I'm sure that that works sometimes. But sometimes it doesn't. How can someone who wants a mausoleum burial avoid all this? Big cemeteries owned by big corporations are likely to have these shoddily constructed mausoleums and make all sorts of promises about them that may not be true.

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But it's not confined to corporate behavior. If you actually want a clean and dry mausoleum burial, your best bet is to be in a plain Jane simple coffin that does not seal, that can allow air circulation, and in a well-designed mausoleum. Has this always been a problem with mausoleums?

Death in the city: what happens when all our cemeteries are full?

I was in Baltimore a couple of months ago and went to a famous historic cemetery. There were a lot of above ground mausoleums. Old school ones, these were nineteenth century burials and they were made out of brick.


They were one story high, they weren't buildings. They were just mounds outside that you just had to kneel down to see the inscription. And in the cast-iron doors there were large holes, which I assume were for ventilation. I looked in there, used my flashlight to see what I could see, and you'd see what you'd expect: old pieces of wood coffin broken down, some bones, very dry.

It's what people think of when they think "old skeletons found in the cave" or something. They'd just put folks in there in a cloth, or shroud, or in a coffin and let nature take its course. This is very different from what you see in a modern mausoleum.

What should people keep in mind if they don't want their loved one to become an exploding corpse? Nothing that happens to dead bodies is pretty. There is not a damn thing you can do that's pretty. Decomposition in the ground is gross. Decomposition into a slurry is gross. People probably wouldn't want to watch the actual process of burning someone at degrees that takes place during cremation. Anatomical dissection is also gross.

This is just life. So if you find yourself having emotional twinges about the condition of the body, I strongly urge you to step back.