1902 Encyclopedia > Cemetery


CEMETERY (_____, from _____, to sleep), literally a sleeping–place, was the name applied by the early Christians to the places set apart for the burial of their dead. These were generally extra-mural and unconnected with churches, the practice of interment in churches or churchyards being unknown in the first centuries of the Christian era. The term cemetery has, therefore, been appropriately applied in modern times to the burial grounds, generally extra-mural, which have been substituted for the overcrowded churchyards parishes both urban and rural.

From 1840 to 1855, attention was repeatedly called to the condition of the London churchyards by correspondence in the press and by the reports of Parliamentary committees, the first of which, that of Mr Chadwick, appeared in 1843. The vaults under the pavement of the churches, and the small spaces of open ground surrounding them, where literally crammed with coffins. In many of the buildings the air was so tainted with the products of corruption as to be a direct and palpable source of disease and death to these who frequented them. In the churchyards coffins were placed tier above tier in the graves until they were within a few feet (or sometimes even a few inches) of the surface, and the level of the ground was often raised to that of the lower windows of the church. To make room for fresh interments the sextons had recourse to the surreptitious removal of bones and partially-decayed remains, and in some cases of the contents of the graves were systematically transferred to pits adjacent to the site, the grave-diggers appropriating the coffin-plates, handles, and nails to be sold as waste metal. The daily papers of thirty years ago contain numerous records of scandals of this kind ; while from the official reports it appears that the neighbourhood of the churchyards was always unhealthy, the air being vitiated by the gaseous emanations from the graves and the water, wherever it was obtained from wells, containing organic matter, the source of which could not be mistaken. The vaults of many of the London churches are still crowded with coffins deposited in them during this period of intra-mural interments. In the vaults of Bow Church, Cheapside, the leaden coffins form a huge mass 30 feet high, covered with fungi and cobwebs. In all the other large town the evil prevailed in a greater or less degree, but in London, on account of the immense population and the consequent mortality, it forced itself more readily upon public attention, and after more than one partial measure of relief had been passed the churchyards were, with a few exceptions, finally closed by the Act of 1855, and the cemeteries which now occupy a large extent of ground to the north, south, east, and west, became henceforth the burial places of the metropolis. Several of them had been already established by private enterprize before the passing of the Burial Act of 1855 (Kensal Green Cemetery dates from 1832), but that enactment forms the epoch from which the general development of cemeteries in the Great Britain and Ireland began. Burial within the limits of cities and towns is now almost everywhere abolished, and where it is still in use it is surrounded by such safeguards as make it practically innocuous. At a large expenditure of money London and most of our chief provincial cities and towns have been provided with spacious and well-situated cemeteries, which are under the supervision of the Local Burial Boards and of the inspectors appointed by Government, and anything like a recurrence to the scandalous state of things which existed as late as twenty-five years ago is now impossible.

But through there need be no fear of retrogression there may be a change in another direction. Our present system of burial has been made the subject of very severe strictures on the part of Sir Henry Thompson and others and it has been proposed that we should abandon inhumation altogether and return to the ancient practice of cremation. We shall not discuss this proposal here, as the importance of the subject requires a separate treatment, but we must briefly refer to the criticism upon our cemeteries to which it gave rise. The practice of burial has been very ably defended by Mr Holland, M.R.C.S., who as Medical Inspector of Burials for England and Wales has perhaps a greater practical knowledge of the subject than any other man living, and on the same side were found Dr Richardson and Mr Seymour Haden, who proposed, however, some important modifications of the systems with a view to its improvement. Amongst the objections urged against the present practice, it is alleged that in three ways our cemeteries are a source of danger to the health of the living, viz:--(1) by the gases rising from the surface of the soil causing air-pollution ; (2) by their drainage introducing noxious matter into wells used for drinking purposes ; (3) by the possibility that the reopening of ground in which persons who have died of an infectious disease are interred might sometimes be the means of reproducing an epidemic. Now there is really no evidence in support of these serious allegations ; on the contrary there is much concurrent testimony which tends to completely discredit them. Of course it is not for a moment contended that cemeteries may not mismanaged so as to become a source of danger. But this is beside and beyond the question, for in a matter of kind we cannot argue from individual cases of abuse against the general use, and under the existing system of inspection and superintendence, with local authorities in every district specially charged with the care of the public health, it is difficult to see how any dangerous case of mismanagement could be allowed to develop itself without becoming the subject of immediate investigation and reform. Only very ordinary precaution are required to render a cemetery perfectly safe. "If," says Mr Holland, "no more dead be buried in the soil than the free oxygen contained in rain and dew carried through it will decompose, and if such soil be left undisturbed until the process of decay is completed, and if, as is almost certain to be the case, the use of such ground for burial be discontinued at latest when it becomes full of the remains that do not decay, and probably long before, such places will be neither harmful while they are used for burial, nor anything but beneficial when such use of them is discontinued, as then they will become large decorative gardens or small parks—reservoirs of fresh air." With regards to the alleged peril from air-pollution, it may be replied that there can be no danger so long as the dead are laid in a sufficient space of properly planted ground, and at a moderate distance from any considerable number of houses, and for this purpose a mile is quite sufficient. The gases evolved are to a great extent absorbed by the vegetable produce of the soil, and what little does filter upwards and escape from the surface of the ground cannot accumulate to any pernicious extent, and must necessarily be dispersed and diluted in the air. Who ever perceives any unpleasant odour in a well-kept cemetery? Yet if danger were present the sense of smell would give unmistakable warning of it. As to the question of water-pollution, especially are is always taken to study the drainage of our cemeteries with reference to the neighbouring sources of water supply. Shallow surface wells near a cemetery are open to suspicion, as the water may be tainted by organic matter filtering through the soil, but suspected wells can be closed by the authorities, and it must be remembered that shallow wells are nearly always dangerous whether they are near cemeteries or not. Deep wells are almost invariably safe even near a cemetery, and in most places the water is brought from a distance in mains in such a way that pollution from cemeteries is impossible. As to the danger of infection, if it existed anywhere, assuredly we should have some practical evidence of it from the great cemeteries of the metropolis. Yet there is not a particle of such evidence forthcoming. On the contrary, it is now very generally conceded that there need be little if any fear of infection from a dead body. Undertakers and their assistants who are continually at work among the dead are notoriously free from contagious disease, and, a fortiori, there can be no danger once the body is laid in the earth. It is only in very exceptional cases that it can be disturbed until many years have elapsed, and then all cause for apprehension is gone. Many of the plague-pits in the London churchyards have been reopened in places where the plague-stricken dead once lay piled in layers, and scarcely any human remains have been found, and these in such a condition that it would be impossible to imagine any infection or contagion from them.

The changes in our cemetery system which have been suggested by Mr Seymour Haden and others have all the one common object of increasing the security of safety to the public health, by facilitating and rendering perfect the decay of the buried dead, and it is proposed to accomplish this less by the use of any direct agency for accelerating the natural process, than by removing the obstacles that are at present placed in its way. Mr Seymour Haden tells us that a well-made wooden coffin is practically indestructible, and though it cannot prevent decomposition, yet it arrests it, and keeps the process long incomplete, thus considerably increasing the aggregate of decaying matter at any one time present in a cemetery, and preventing the return of "earth to earth." As a remedy he proposes that we should use wicker coffins, of the present shape, made of white or stained (but unvarnished) osiers, with large open meshes. The contents of such a receptacle could be concealed during the funeral by a graceful covering of ferns and flowers, and in cases in infectious disease, or where decomposition might commence immediately after death, the coffin could be made double with a space of two or three inches between the inner and outer basket to be filled with charcoal or some other disinfectant. Models of such coffins were exhibited by Mr Seymour Haden at Stafford House, London, the town residence of the duke of Sutherland in June 1875, and there is no doubt that if they were generally employed, the natural process of decay in our cemeteries would take place in way that would leave even less room than at present for any evil resulting from carelessness or mismanagement on the part of the authorities charged with their superintendence, and the number of bodies actually decaying in any given cemetery would be comparatively few, so surely and effectually would the process be completed in a great majority of cases. The abandonment of the practice of burial in vaults, brick graves, and catacombs, such as those which are to be seen in many of the London cemeteries, is of course a corollary of this proposal ; and whether Mr Seymour Haden’s plan is adopted or not, it is quite certain that our cemeteries would be greatly improved by no more brick graves being made in them, and by the open catacombs being closed wherever they exist. Such places are very difficult to ventilate, and must frequently be the source of malarious exhalations.

Amongst other proposals which have been made it has been suggested, that when a good natural soil containing carbon does not exist the site of the proposed cemetery should be excavated to the depth of about 12 feet, and then filled up with an artificial soil composed of carbon, lime and sand. The existence of carbon in the soil would removed any danger of water pollution through filtration from the cemetery, while the lime would tend to accelerate the resolution of the decaying matter into its original elements. This is Dr Richardson’s proposal, and he further adds that the cemetery should be planted with quick-growing shrubs and ornamental grasses, the trees being confined to an encircling belt of wood, and a series of memorial tables in an adjacent edifice being substituted for tomb stones and monuments. He further points our that with such a method the cemetery might be renovated after a certain number of years by substituting freshly-prepared soil for the old. But there does not seem to be any advantages in this. There must always be open spaces in and around our cities for the sake of the fresh air, and a cemetery in which interments have ceased for some years, and in which the ornamental plantations were kept in good order, would form a useful park or garden. In the disposal of our dead feeling must always be allowed to be a considerable factor in the arguments for the adoption of any given plan, and it appears that in Great Britain and Ireland there would be an amount of dislike to any method which did not assign to our dead something like a lasting place of interment. This feeling does not by any means exist in some of the countries of the Continent. In one of the cemeteries of Naples numerous burials take place in a series of 365 pits. One pit opened each day, the dead are laid in it, and it is filled with an earth containing a large quantity of lime. A year after the pit is reopened, the earth with its contents, now almost entirely decayed, is removed, fresh earth is placed in its stead, and the pit is again ready for new interments.

The chief cemeteries of London are Kensal Green Cemetery on the Harrow Road, about 2 _ miles from Paddington, which has an area of 18 acres and already contains the remains of 70,000 dead ; High-gate Cemetery, which occupies a considerable portion of the slope of High-gate Hill, and commands one of the best views of London ; the cemetery at Abney Park (once the residence of Dr Watts), which is adorned with very fine plantations of old growth ; the Norwood and Nunhead cemeteries to the south of London ; the West London Cemetery at Brompton ; the cemeteries at Ilford and Leytonstone in Essex ; the Victoria Cemetery and the Tower Hamlets Cemetery in East London; and at a still greater distance, and generally accessible only by railway, the great cemetery at Woking near Guildford in Surrey, and the cemetery at Colney Hatch. The general plan of all these cemeteries is the same, a park with broad paths either laid out in curved lines as at Kensal Green and Highgate, or crossing each at right angles as in the case of the West London Cemetery. The ground on each side of these paths is marked off into grave spaces, and trees and shrubs are planted in the intervals between them. The buildings consist of a curator’s residence and one or more chapels, and usually there is also a range of catacombs, massive structures containing in their corridors recesses for the reception of coffins, generally closed only by an iron grating. The provincial cemeteries in the main features of their arrangements resemble those of the metropolis. One of the most remarkable is St Jamen’s Cemetery at Liverpool, which occupies a deserted quarry. The face of the eastern side of the quarry is traversed by ascending gradients off which open catacombs formed in the living rock,—a soft sandstone ; the ground below is planted with trees, amongst which stand hundreds of gravestone. The main approach on the north side is through a tunnel, above which, on a projecting rock, stands the cemetery chapel, built in the form of a small Doric temple with tetrastyle porticoes. Its situation, though very picturesque, is an objectionable one, for no cemetery should ever be constructed in a deep hollow. Many of the cities of America possess very fine cemeteries. One of the largest is that of Mount Auburn near Boston, which occupies upwards of 110 acres of undulating ground on the bank of he Charles River. It is formed out of an old and well-wooded estate, and consequently, unlike most modern cemeteries, its plantations consists of large well-grown trees.

The chief cemetery of Paris is that of the Père la Chaise, the prototype of the garden cemeteries of Western Europe. It takes its name from the celebrated confessor of Louis XIV., to whom as rector of the Jesuits of Paris it once belonged. It was laid out as a cemetery in 1804. It has an area of about 200 acres, and contains 16,000 monuments, including those of all the great men of France of the present century—marshals, generals, ministers, poets, painters, men of science and letters, actors, and musicians. Twice the cemetery and the adjacent heights have been the scene of a desperate struggle ; in 1814 they were stormed by a Russian column during the attack on Paris by the allies, and in 1871 the Communists made their last stand among the tombs of Père la Chaise ; 900 of them fell in the defence of the cemetery or were shot there after its capture, and 200 of them were buried in quicklime in one huge grave, and 700 in another. There are other cemeteries at Mont Parnasse and Montmatre, besides the minor burying –grounds at Auteuil, Batignolles, Passy, La Villette, &c. In consequence of all these cemeteries being more or less crowded, a great cemetery was laid out in 1874 on the plateau of Mèry sur Oise, 16 miles to the north of Paris, with which it is connected by a railway line. It includes within its circuit fully two square miles of ground. The French cemetery system differs in many respect from the English. Every city and town is required by law to provide a burial beyond its barriers, properly laid out and planted, and situated if possible on a rising ground. Each interment must take place in a separate grave. This, however, does not apply to Paris, where the dead are buried, forty or fifty at a time, in the fosses communes, the poor being interred gratuitously, and a charge of 20 francs being made in all other cases. The fosse is filled and left undisturbed for five year, then all crosses and other memorials are removed, the level of the ground is raised 4 or 5 feet by fresh earth and interments begin again. For a fee of 50 francs a concession temporaire for ten years can be obtained, but where it is desired to erect a permanent monument the ground must be bought by the executors of the deceased. In Paris the undertakers’ trade is the monopoly of a company, the Société des pompes funèbres, which in return for its privileges is required to give a free burial to the poor.

The Leichenhaüser, or dead-houses, of Frankfort and Munich form a remarkable feature of the cemeteries of these cities. The object of their founders was twofold,—(1) to obviate even the remotest danger of premature interment, and (2) to offer a respectable place for the reception of the dead, in order to removed the corpse from the confined dwellings of the survivors. At Frankfort the dead-house (fig. 2) occupies one of the wings of the propylaeum, which forms the main entrance to the cemetery. It consists of the warder’s room B, where an attendant is always on duty, on each side of which there are five rooms A, A, well ventilated, kept at an even temperature, and each provided with a beir on which a corpse can be laid. On one of the fingers is placed a ring connected by a light cord with a bell which hangs outside in the warder’s room. The use of the dead-house is voluntary. The bodies deposited there are inspected at regular intervals by a medical officers, and the warder is always on the watch for the ringing of the warning bell. One revival, that of a child, has place at Frankfort. The Leichenhaus of Munich is situated in the southern cemetery outside the Sendling Gate. At one of end of the cemetery there is a semi-circular building with an open colonnade in front and a projection behind, which contains three large room for the reception of the dead. At both Frankfort and Munich great care is taken the attendants received the dead confided to them with respect, and no interment is permitted the first signs of decomposition appear ; the relatives then assemble in one of the halls adjoining the Leichenhaus, and the funeral takes place. In any case there is, with ordinary care, little fear of premature interment, but in another way such places of deposit for the dead are of great use in large towns, as they prevent the evil effects which result from the prolonged retention of the dead among the living. Mortuaries for this purpose are now established in many places in England.

Of the cemeteries still it use in Southern Europe the catacombs of Sicily are the most curious. There is one of these under the old Capuchin monastery of Ziza near Palermo, Where in four large airy subterranean corridors 2000 corpses are ranged in niches in the wall, many of them shrunk up into the most grotesque attitudes, or hanging with pendent limbs and head from their places. As a preparation for the niche, the body is desiccated in a kind of oven, and then dressed as in life and raised into its place in the wall. At the end of the principal corridor at Ziza there is an altar strangely ornamented with a kind of mosaic of human skulls and bones.

Cemeteries have been in use among many Eastern nations from time immemorial. In China, the high ground near Canton and Macao are crowded with tombs, many of them being in the form of small tumuli, with a low encircling wall, forcibly recalling the ringed barrows of Western Europe. But the most picturesque cemeteries in the world are those of the Turks. From them it was, perhaps, that the first idea of the modern cemetery, with its ornamental plantations, was derived. Around Constantinople the cemeteries form vast tracts of cypress woods, under whose branches stand thousands of tombstone. A grave is never reopened ; a new resting-place is formed for every one, and so the dead now occupy a wider territory than that which is covered by the homes of the living. The Turks believe that till the body is buried the soul is in a state of discomfort, and the funeral, therefore, takes place as soon as possible after death. No coffin is used, the body is laid in the grave, a few boards are arranged round it, and then the earth is shoveled in, care being taken to leave a small opening extending from the head of the corpse to the surface of the ground, an opening not unfrequently enlarged by dogs and other beasts which plunder the grave. A tombstone of white marble is then erected, surmounted by a carved turban in the case of a man, and ornamented by a palm branch in low relief if the grave is that of a woman. The turban by its varying form indicates not only the rank of the sleeper below, but also the period of his death, for the fashion of the Turkish head-dress is always changing. A cympress is usually planted beside the grave, its odour being supposed to neutralize any noxious exhalation from the ground, and thus every cemetery is a forest, where by day hundreds of turtle doves are on the wing or perching on the trees, and where bats and owls swarm undisturbed at a night. Especially for the Turkish woman the cemeteries are a favourite resort, and some of them are always to be seen beside the narrow opening that lead down into a parent’s a husband’s, or a brother’s grave. Some of the other cemeteries of Constantinople contrast rather unfavourably with the simple dignity of those which belong to the Turks. That of the Armenians abounds with bas-reliefs which show the manner of the death of whoever is buried below, and on these singular tombstones there are frequent representations of men being decapitated or hanging on the gallows.

See on this subject various parliamentary paper issued since 1843 London on Cemetery Interment, the reports of the cemetery companies, and the discussions on our cemetery system in reference to cremation in the Contemporary Review and other perieodicals (1874-1875). Books of travel numerous description of remarkable foreign foreign cemeteries. (A. H. A.)

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