England during the Victorian Age was a place full of traditions and rites which were certainly odd, even though people were not really paying attention to them. By looking at those from today point of view, it is tricky to imagine people behaving in such a strange way; for example the burial methods and bodies conservation were some amongst the most weird customs in all history. Death by itself is already pretty ghastly, but during those years it would assume real absurd features.
1. The demand would exceed the by far the supply of available space in the cemeteries, and the corpses were buried in coffins grouped in the tombs, where it was no rare thing to find even 20 coffins piled one on top of the other. These were not placed just in cemeteries but also inside churches, contributing to give life to unpleasant smells of putrefaction.
Below: a burial in Victorian times with a gate which would prevent the body to be take by the corpse hunters for universities
2. People were afraid that their beloved ones would come back in the world of the livings as zombies or vampires, maybe after a not so natural death. Sometimes, like in other epochs, the corpses were buried heading down in order to prevent such a problem, hence if they did get back, they could have only dug downwards, without possibility to get out. The attack was not from dead to alive but also the other way around. The tombs were covered with cages to avoid the illegal exhumation of the corpses, widely spread activity to provide bodies to study in medical laboratories and carry out experiments.
3. The bodies in the Victorian cemeteries were often violated, torn to pieces and destroyed. This habit was employed by the gravediggers who wanted to create new room for new bodies, in order to get some more money through the burials. It was so common to find bones and body parts in decomposition spread all over the cemetery.
4. The old coffins were destroyed and sold as firewood. This way the gravediggers would exploit the coffin too apart from the body removal which would give room to a new deceased one.
5. The Victorian cemeteries would stink like an unbearable sweaty cloth. The smell of bodies in decomposition in the overcrowded cemeteries was so strong that they thought that it could have an impact on the health condition of the local population. A gravedigger of the Victorian London summed up at his best the concept:
“I emptied the black well and the smell was of rose water in comparison to the one of the tombs”.
6. The gravediggers were used to using the bones to play a game, called Skittles. The game was some sort of bowling, clear example of the overcrowded situation in the cemeteries.
Below: London Necropolis Railway, the Victorian railway reserved to funeral rites.
7. The “corpses steam”, a phenomenon to be careful about. These steams were gases that the human body exhales through decomposition. The experts were often called to pierce the coffins which were inside the churches, in order to avoid the formation of gas bombs, which could detonate out of the blue. The smell of the substances then coming from the coffin was terrible.
8. Believers had to bear incredible smells during the ceremonies, probably due to the enormous number of bodies present in churches and chapels. The habit was to keep a tissue onto one’s nose in occasion of services and weddings, which would have soothed, in part, the pain of smelling that atrocious smell.
9. The Victorian cemeteries were visibly overfilled by bodies. How many? The average per 200 square meter could easily be between 60 and 70,000 corpses, an unbelievable number.
10. The funerals were an extremely important ceremony for the wealthy people of the time. They could hire a “professional mourning”, women paid to cry to funerals, or mute men who would be used as symbolical witnesses of the death person: often they would sit next to the door of the church during the funeral service.