Regency Graveyards, Pt1

The Crypt, St. Bartholomews Church. Source:
The Crypt, St. Bartholomews Church. Source:

Remember how I mentioned that I have a thirst for the unusual when it comes to the Regency period? As a result, I have been combing resources (online and elsewhere) for information about Regency graveyards.

First note: if you want to do the same search, save yourself some aggravation, and use the search term “cemetery” instead. While the term graveyard is used, in the context it generally seems to refer to Churchyard burials rather than the larger public burial places.

So, the search started off discovering a fair bit of information about burial customs. That is, when someone died, it was often the family – usually the females of the house – who would dress and care for the body. Then, while there may have been some kind of service in a church, females rarely came out to the graveyard, considered too “delicate” for these matters. I thought this a bit strange – they hadn’t been too delicate to care for the corpse.

Then I did a bit more research.

You know the saying “6 feet under” and those cracked and ruined graveyards with moss and trees, melancholy yet picturesque? Yeah. Very much a Victorian invention, and created after things reached horrific terms by the 1820s  – 1840s.

Graveyards were noxious places. There were two central problems: grave robbers, and open graves. For while the rich were privileged enough to often have private burial places perhaps at churchyards or in family graveyards on the ancestral estate, others were not so fortunate. Graves were packed tightly together in a square formation – no wide walking paths, but narrow passage between groups of them. Worse, as populations, especially in major cities, increased, there were naturally more dead to bury. This often necessitated a grave that might be dug six feet, perhaps deeper – but it wasn’t closed before more than one body was interred, leaving perhaps a foot of earth covering the coffin if there was one, sometimes less.

Yes, by this time I was thinking I, too, would have been too delicate for the graveyard.

As today, there was still a fee for burial. And for those lacking funds? You could inter your loved ones for a time, after which their “parking spot” expired, and the remains would be removed, trundled off in the night for a fertilizer plant, all to make room for new arrivals. How long the body stayed there depended on the watchfulness of the surviving family, and sometimes just the caprice of the graveyard keepers.

This was one of the few advertisements I found directly hinting at Regency conditions:

New Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, Church Steet, Islington – This extensive GROUND has been prepared with a view to prevent those shocking depredations which now afflict the public mind: it is securely enclosed, carefully guarded, and will always be well lighted during the winter months; it also offers the best security against profane intrusion, because dry graves may be sunk in it to a depth defying such attempts, viz. 10, 15, 20 feet, or as much further as may be desired: the public will easily perceive that a grave which demands the incessant labour of two men during two long days to sink, and requires many shoring planks, must be placed beyond the power of violation. Orders for funerals taken in by the sexton, on the premises, of whom cards of the dues and fees may be had. By the particular request of several of the principal undertakers, a large general vault has been constructed, in which all interments must be in lead or iron.
    Advertisement in The Times, December 15th 1818

[source 1=”” language=”:”][/source]

High walls and strong internment caskets to keep out grave robbers (the bodies were only good if still fresh). Not certain if the lead and iron internments were just to prevent robbery. The problem with them was that sometimes, having no air holes, they could explode.

I had trouble finding contemporary account of cemeteries (weird, huh? Didn’t they know someone would want such strange information someday?).

I’ll offer just this tiny tidbit to start to give you an idea. This is a brief description of Clement’s Lane, in London.

“… The back windows of the houses on the east side of the lane look into a burying ground called the ” Green Ground,” in Portugal Street, presently to be described ; on the west side the windows (if open) permit the odour of another burying place — a private one, called Enon Chapel — to perflate the houses ; at the bottom — the south end — of this Lane, is another burying place, belonging to the Alms Houses, (‘) within a few feet of the Strand, and in the centre of the Strand are the burying ground and vaults of St. Clement Danes ; in addition to which, there are several slaughter houses in the immediate neighbourhood : so that in a distance of about two hundred yards, in a direct line there are four burying grounds ; …” [source 1=”Gatherings” 2=”from” 3=”Grave” 4=”Yards,” 5=”by” 6=”G.A.” 7=”Walker,” 8=”p149″ language=”:”][/source]

So, this post has already gotten unbearably long. 😉 Thanks for reading – curious?

Here are a few resources you can check out, available free from Google Books:

Report on the sanitary conditions of the labouring population of Great Britain. Edwin Chadwick (sir.) [1843]

Gatherings from Grave Yards: Particularly Those of London. With a concise History of the modes of internment among different Nations from earliest periods. And a detail of Dangerous and Fatal results produced by the unwise & revolting custom of inhuming the dead in the midst of the living. By G. A. Walker, Surgeon. 1830. [had to include the full title; kind of explains what the book is. 🙂 ]

The Funeral Guide: or, A correct list of the burial fees, & of the various grounds in the metropolis &c. five miles round. John Cauch [1840]