On Westminster Bridge Road, a busy street just south of the River Thames, there’s a redbrick façade that stands out from its dour, nondescript neighbors. The sign installed over its shutters—WESTMINSTER BRIDGE HOUSE—is plain enough, but it’s at odds with the anguished gargoyles to each side and the pair of ionic columns that erupt bombastically from the first floor. On second glance, the sign looks as if it’s trying to brush off unwanted attention: if the adjoining structures are merely anonymous, this place looks like it might have been placed under witness protection.
When I lived nearby, this building exuded an obscurely intimidating, noirish presence. It begged investigation. Before long, I discovered it had been constructed as the headquarters of the “London Necropolis Company” (LNC) founded in 1852 to bring businesslike efficiency to Victorian funeral practices amid a soaring urban population. The LNC’s simple idea was to use rail travel to whisk the dead and their mourners out of the heaving city—where burial space was increasingly hard to come by—and into the smiling, spacious countryside. Westminster Bridge House, home to the company from 1902, was the departure point for its ghostly train service. As John M. Clarke, a specialist on the subject, reported in Cabinet, the building housed “funerary workshops, mortuaries, and a private chapel of rest” and was used by the railway funeral service until April 16, 1941, when it “was destroyed in the worst night of the Blitz by a German bomb.” As a result, only the front part of the building is left, but traces of its old role do remain: in satellite imagery, one can just make out faded railway sidings at the rear of the site, merging shortly afterwards with the mainline out of Waterloo.
When the Necropolis Railway was in full swing, platforms were differentiated by religion and tickets came in different classes. But the destination was always the same. Brookwood Cemetery, about thirty miles to the southwest, brought a flavor of Thomas Gray’s emblematic “country churchyard” within reach of the urban everyman. With its pleasing echo of Shakespeare’s “rooky wood,” it sought to be an ideal version of the rural within easy commuting distance from the city—a perfect suburb. And if the suburbs are often thought of as dormitories, then here was one where you could sleep forever, free from the bother of noisy neighbors or new housing developments.
Arriving there today, one is still struck by a sense of spacious calm. It’s the largest cemetery in Britain, and although there are sections of military graveyard whose orderly patterns recall those of the former battlefields in northern France, much of it eschews straight lines in favor of allowing room to amble and ponder. And yet for somewhere designed for remembering, Brookwood feels strangely forgotten: more like a dusty old attic than a working archive. Barely any living visitors seem to frequent it, and the place can make a visitor uneasy, its rustic wonkiness more unsettling than homely: many of its mausoleums are breeze-blocked shut, as if to deter vagrants, and the oddly spongy ground makes every step feel like a transgression onto a newly dug plot.
Brookwood, it seems, is the material manifestation of an awkward contradiction. Modernity is supposed to have disenchanted the world, but it has arguably had the reverse effect on human remains. For if there is no immaterial soul to endure, the corpse—irrefutably perishable in itself—becomes the only evidence of past life. This makes it hard to consider the body as a husk to be discarded, and therefore has the effect of transforming our remains into a “site” where different threads of meaning became knotted and tangled. Memory, respect, tradition, heritage, culture—not to mention sorrow and loss—are all bundled up in an intricate confusion. And if the condition of the graveyard is to give form to this complexity, then the overlooked condition of places like Brookwood seems to be characteristic of our failure to come to terms with the issue. It shows that the dead body is still improperly reconciled with the modern.