Header image:The Pet Cementery of Hyde Park, photo credit: London Insight
‘In these times of ours, though concerning the exact year there is no need to be precise, a boat of dirty and disreputable appearance, with two figures in it, floated on the Thames, between Southwark bridge which is of iron, and London Bridge which is of stone, as an autumn evening was closing in.’
While the river police collect the corpses these days, there is still a lively trade in death, both literally and metaphorically. As London’s great biographer Peter Ackroyd put it, ‘Tread carefully over the pavements of London for you are treading on skin.’ Many people visit London today sniffing out the stinking remains of its gothic past. Even those who don’t indulge in a Jack the Ripper Tour, Highgate Cemetery or – god forbid – the London Dungeons can’t avoid the macabre mood. London is a city with history and history, if my half-course GCSE taught me nothing else, is full of dead people. London is more full of living people than other areas of this island, so it takes no serious extrapolation to imagine that it is therefore more filled with the dead than anywhere else. In fact, over 3,000 acres of London is taken up by cemeteries.
The London Necropolis Company: a logo that pre-dates the age of PR. Today, there would be at least one cute animal in this mix (though the snake is quite sweet).
Overcrowding is a constant problem with regards to London’s corpses. Only a decade before Hexam was wending his watery way across the Thames, the London Necropolis Company made a bid to capitalise on the surfeit of the dead by forging a railway route from near Waterloo to Surrey in order to transport coffins and their inhabitants. Although not the wild success its owners had hoped, a daily service served the Anglican and non-Anglican stops of England’s then-largest cemetery. Only the bombing of one of the stations in 1941 brought the practice to an end (and it was still a less grim train ride than most of GNER’s).
Of course, the dead have never been dealt with with much ceremony in London. At Tyburn, London’s key site of public execution, the hangman himself plied a nice sideline in taking the deceased’s clothing for resale. In 1447, five men fell foul of this practice. Pardoned after they had begun their hanging, they were duly cut down, but were not given the privilege of their clothes. Naked, but alive, they walked their way back home.
Even once dead the threat of theft was not over. Before the 1852 anatomy act, the resurrectionist (or body snatcher) was prevalent enough to precipitate the invention of mortsafes: iron barred caskets that covered the gravesite and prevented the earthly remains from being carried off for the study of anatomy.
Today, the last hands upon the dead are not so cruel. An industry of professionals tend to assessing, preparing and beautifying the recently deceased. One pathologist agreed to speak to me. Although post mortem analysis is a relatively small part of the pathologist’s workload – ‘maybe 5 per cent’, she told me – CSI’s many permutations have ensured that this is the part of their job that springs to mind. The sophistication of their work cannot be underestimated: samples of tissue are sliced to one thousandth of a millimetre and studied under a microscope for detailed diagnosis. At the other end of the scale are vast incisions across the body to remove organs. I asked whether there was much attachment to the corpses but the response was quite to the contrary. ‘I’m sure initially we all feign a sort of clichéd reverence but pretty soon objectivity reigns and the preoccupation is with who’s got the more interesting case and who’s going to have to eviscerate the fat one.’ But this doesn’t preclude job satisfaction. This pathologist concluded that it was ‘the best puzzle in the world!’ Although The London Dungeon will continue to perpetuate the Smoke’s grisly past, Londoner’s can rest assured that death is no longer the foul institution it once was.
This is a guest post by Duncan Carson