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Necropolis: London and Its Dead

de Catharine Arnold

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5591132,170 (3.6)33
Above, a city thriving with life. Beneath, a city filled with the dead. London. A vast, labyrinthine, ever-moving place that shimmers as the jewel of Britain. But what about beneath it? What of it's history? It's mishaps? It's dead? Catharine Arnold invites us on a gloriously macabre tour - across London's many graveyards, cemeteries and burial plots in a quest to discover whether what has departed can teach us anything about what is to come. It's an intriguing, occasionally dark, occasionally humorous journey that reaches right back to the Romans and concludes with the most recent display of mass public mourning: Princess Diana's funeral. Utilising archaeology, anthropology, anecdote and history, Arnold explores the presence of death in people's lives and the developments and changes in mourning and burial through two millennia. London's greatest disasters, including the Great Fire and the Black Plague, are explored and analysed for their massive impacts on both the population and the change in the disposal of the dead, while the unusual resting places of several thousand Londoners are highlighted and studied, as a means of examining growth and city development. Implicitly entwined with the passing of generations is the transformation of an entire population; where and how people live, where and how they die, and where their children move on to. Arnold marvellously celebrates the possibilities of living in a city as large as London and sensitively demonstrates how much modern citizens owe to their ancestors. Filled with beautiful details, such as the reason we wear black to funerals (Romans believed the colour made mourners invisible to vengeful spirits), and in an optimistic and respectful voice, Arnold brings us a unique history of one of the world's greatest cities - built atop centuries of history and still rising to this day. If you've ever wondered where the sweet hereafter might be, then look no further - Arnold shows us beautifully how even in a city as massive as London, the dead never really leave us.… (més)
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Es mostren 1-5 de 11 (següent | mostra-les totes)
The first book I read for the Non Fiction November Reading Challenge this year is Necropolis - London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold. The author tackles the fascinating history of London burials from pre-historic and medieval times to the present day.

According to the blurb:
"The city is one giant grave, filled with the remains of previous eras. The Houses of Parliament sit on the edge of a former plague pit, St Paul's is built over human remains; Underground tunnels were driven through forgotten catacombs, thick with bones."

I found the earliest history the least interesting. My fascination really begins as burial space in London and the surrounding areas became cramped and Londoners began to run out of places to bury their dead.

Arnold shines a light into the darkness of countless horrific practices in graveyards all over London. Remains were shoved into crevices within churches, often dug up and relocated to charnel houses or pits without notifying the families and bodysnatchers were a real concern. Some graveyards had significantly grown in height due to the placement of bodies on top of each other in layers that in some cases, the burial grounds were reaching the first floor windows of churches and neighbouring houses.

Many proposed the move away from inner city burials in churchyards and burial plots, and championed the establishment of new cemeteries in consecrated ground in the countryside. Arnold takes us through the movers and shakers across decades and centuries as this began to take form, including the key figures involved in designing these cemeteries.

Countless cemeteries and graveyards are mentioned here including the iconic - and my favourite - Highgate Cemetery, which provides a rich history for amateur sleuths and family historians. Many of the old graveyards scattered throughout London were soon forgotten together with the plague pits which had never been marked with gravestones or markers.

"As time passed, London has constructed houses, churches, streets, entire railway stations, over these mass graves, and it is only by chance that they come to light due to building excavations." Page 65

"In fact, the tunnel curves between Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations because it was impossible to drill through the mass of skeletal remains buried in Hyde Park." Page 2

I knew how devastating the Great Fire of London was in 1666, however it was shocking to read:

"Seventy per cent of its houses vanished into the flames. Thirteen thousand buildings, including eighty-nine churches, disappeared for ever." Page 68

After the fires and the razing of so many structures, new construction began and the dead were swiftly forgotten in favour of rebuilding London. Gravestones, rubble and in some cases human remains from the fires were used in the foundations of new buildings.

"Inevitably, the final remains of many Londoners went into the latest foundations of their great city." Page 172

I enjoy fiction set - or written - during the Victorian era with a particular interest in the rituals and etiquette surrounding death and mourning. Arnold gives the reader much to digest in Necropolis, with the introduction of the great Victorian cemeteries and the detailed mourning practices of the era.

The horses used in Victorian funerals to pull hearses and mourning coaches were:

"strong, handsome, blue-black animals, worth 50 [pounds] each, were imported from Holland and Belgium. Constantly in the public eye, they were always well groomed. A patch of grey would be painted out, a thinning mane or tail supplemented with hair from a deceased comrade. Mostly gentle and docile they were sturdy animals." Page 196

The introduction of cremation and society's changing attitudes towards it were interesting as were the impact of both world wars on the notion of grief and mourning. Although I could have done without the remarkable level of detail with regard to the individual cemeteries.

Necropolis - London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold reads like an academic text and isn't for everyone. If you enjoy history, anthropology, urban development, changing attitudes to death and mourning or learning about the macabre, then this is for you. ( )
  Carpe_Librum | Nov 20, 2019 |
Arnold's "City of Sin", covering all the naughty things Londoners have gotten up to over the years, remains one of my favourite books. I thus hunted down a copy of "Necropolis" but sadly and belatedly realised that reading about the sexual hijinks of Londoners was always going to be much more interesting than reading about overcrowded cemeteries. Which is not to say that "Necropolis" is particularly dull, just that it suffers in comparison with "City of Sin", or for that matter Arnold's other histories of London, "Bedlam" London and its mad" and "Underworld London".

So, yes, this is a history of disposing of London's dead, with its squalid inner city cemeteries to the nineteenth century introduction of crematoriums (and who knew it was such a risky legal venture to cremate a body back then) to the latest, environmentally friendly ways to go. Still, give me the naked MPs of "City of Sin" any day. ( )
  MiaCulpa | Jun 30, 2016 |
The question of what heavily populated communities that have been inhabited for hundreds or thousands of years do with their dead is something that I've always wondered about. So I was intrigued when this came up as an Amazon daily deal a few months ago. A lot of my questions were answered, though the book could have been more comprehensive. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the book was devoted to the Victorian era, since not only was that when the city reached a burial crisis, but it was also an era of intense fascination with death and mourning. There is very little about modern times, since one short chapter covers the last century, which included two World Wars and the influenza epidemic. I liked it, though I did end up skipping a couple of Victorian chapters that just didn't interest me. ( )
  SylviaC | Nov 24, 2015 |
Fascinating study of how London has dealt with its dead over the years, beginning with the Celts and the Romans. Arnold discusses the difficulties encountered with burials during the multiple plagues and epidemics experienced in London, the development of the famous cemeteries outside of London, Victorian mourning rituals, cremation, through the two World Wars, and a brief look at current day practices.

It doesn't SOUND like it would be that interesting, but I was mesmerized from start to finish! ( )
  tloeffler | Feb 9, 2013 |
I can't see any sense in lamenting that this book doesn't achieve a high level of scholastic rigour or focus, given that it is mass published paperback. It is, as the tag on the cover of the edition in my library explains, an 'entertainment'. Does it entertain? Well in parts. Personally the history of the economy of death and burial was the most interesting - both the legitimate economy (church fees and cemeteries as commercial enterprises) and the underground (or should I say black...) economy of grave robbing, diversion of bodies for profit, and plot reselling. Arnold writes very well on these particular issues in the period from age of Elizabeth through to Victorian times, but then seems to miss an incredible opportunity to expose modern practices (and malpractice) that would show that nothing much changes, only the profits get larger with time. One imagine the book's editors may have counselled that any events more recent than a 100 years past might best rest in peace else they come with a lawyer attached. And I could imagine that the editors might have prompted Arnold to spend more time on the macabre and less on the monetary side of the business. I suppose it is a saving grace - at least - that Arnold wasn't inspired (or coerced) into adding a section about vampire activities, although there are wooden stakes through the heart aplenty for reasons that I will leave for the reader to discover. All up Arnold does a fine job with the material. The only thing missing - and it's absence felt on almost every page - was a host of maps and pictures. Arnolds descriptions of places and memorial is extraordinarily detailed and relevant to the development of the story, and this calls out for some extra resources to satisfy the readers interest. Recommended. ( )
  nandadevi | Nov 24, 2012 |
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Death now hath ceaz'd her in his ycie armes;/ That sometime was the Sun of our delight/ And pittilesse of any after-harmes,/ Hath veyld her glory in the cloude of night.../ Shepheard remember our Elizabeth,/ And sing her Rape, done by that Tarquin, Death.
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No man is an Island, entire of it self. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. - John Donne
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Above, a city thriving with life. Beneath, a city filled with the dead. London. A vast, labyrinthine, ever-moving place that shimmers as the jewel of Britain. But what about beneath it? What of it's history? It's mishaps? It's dead? Catharine Arnold invites us on a gloriously macabre tour - across London's many graveyards, cemeteries and burial plots in a quest to discover whether what has departed can teach us anything about what is to come. It's an intriguing, occasionally dark, occasionally humorous journey that reaches right back to the Romans and concludes with the most recent display of mass public mourning: Princess Diana's funeral. Utilising archaeology, anthropology, anecdote and history, Arnold explores the presence of death in people's lives and the developments and changes in mourning and burial through two millennia. London's greatest disasters, including the Great Fire and the Black Plague, are explored and analysed for their massive impacts on both the population and the change in the disposal of the dead, while the unusual resting places of several thousand Londoners are highlighted and studied, as a means of examining growth and city development. Implicitly entwined with the passing of generations is the transformation of an entire population; where and how people live, where and how they die, and where their children move on to. Arnold marvellously celebrates the possibilities of living in a city as large as London and sensitively demonstrates how much modern citizens owe to their ancestors. Filled with beautiful details, such as the reason we wear black to funerals (Romans believed the colour made mourners invisible to vengeful spirits), and in an optimistic and respectful voice, Arnold brings us a unique history of one of the world's greatest cities - built atop centuries of history and still rising to this day. If you've ever wondered where the sweet hereafter might be, then look no further - Arnold shows us beautifully how even in a city as massive as London, the dead never really leave us.

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