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.
The question of how to deal with the dead goes way back, of course. When the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope died in 323 bce, he asked for his remains to be cast carelessly beyond the city walls. The request drew consternation, even among those who were accustomed to his unusual way of life. (Diogenes, one of the original Cynics, lived in a kennel.) And the fact that it still bothers us today shows that the dead still work on us in complex ways. This, at least, is the argument made by cultural historian Thomas Laqueur in The Work of the Dead, a recently published “cultural history of mortal remains” that develops themes from Robert Pogue Harrison’s 2003 volume The Dominion of the Dead. Just as Laqueur quotes Hans-Georg Gadamer’s remark that burial “is perhaps the fundamental phenomenon of becoming human,” so Harrison, following Martin Heidegger, declared that “to be human means above all to bury”: “For as long as we think of our houses, cities, and nations as merely places to live, and not as places to die,” he writes, “those houses, cities, and nations can never become homes.” The idea is that burial forms the bedrock of our sense of place: the very “da” that “Dasein”—Heidegger’s famous characterization of human existence as, literally, “there-being”—requires in order to properly make sense. To really feel our connection with a given territory, to really assert our humanity and sense of dwelling, we need our ancestors to be buried there.
This seems like a highly conservative position given that ever more people are choosing to have their remains cremated. (In the U.K. the last count was just shy of 75 percent.) On the other hand, it seems fair to say that the idea of being buried underground has maintained, at least in Western society, an awkward place at the center of our mythic consciousness. Even if it’s not what everybody chooses, it’s still the norm against which other practices are judged. This raises some difficult questions. If burial is a necessary part of belonging to a space, it can’t avoid facing up to more mundane, practical issues, such as who that space belongs to. Land is a valuable commodity, particularly in densely populated areas, and we could never have hoped to bury everybody exactly where they have lived. So how do we value the spaces of the dead against those of the living?
In London, where I live, land values have ballooned so improbably that even the most tawdry living spaces are supposedly worth fortunes. It can feel impertinent to ask about the meaning of other kinds of space, and in any case active burial grounds can be hard to find. In the City, the historic center, churchyards don’t have many graves—Christopher Wren was said to be against them—and other plots tend to be small and tucked away. A few forlorn stones molder away at angles, while the men and women whose lives they’re supposed to commemorate lie long forgotten, their epitaphs weathered into illegibility.
This appearance has a lot to do with the nineteenth century, which not only revived the pagan ritual of cremation, but also saw the development of the “cemetery” itself. The model was Père Lachaise in Paris, which opened in 1804 and became fashionable when the writers Molière and Jean de La Fontaine were reburied there in 1817, followed by the ill-fated lovers Abélard and Héloïse. Copies soon began to appear in London: Kensal Green was the first to open its doors (in 1833), but it took the Duke of Sussex’s reservation of a plot for it to be fully accepted by polite society. Cemeteries were, after all, surrogate spaces, conspicuously lacking in heritage or tradition. They were private speculations, designed to make money, neither consecrated nor attached to places of worship. It took people a while to become accustomed to this feeling of dislocation, even if it made perfect sense. The rapid radial expansion of the city impelled death towards the margins both practically and theoretically—in the case of Brookwood, the law was even changed to allow coffins to be transported by rail; more generally the replacement of local churchyards by massive cemeteries reflected modernity’s displacement of man from the center of the universe.
Modern literary renditions of London have railed against this displacement of death and burial, bringing it squarely back into the foreground. From Iain Sinclair’s 1975 poem Lud Heat to Peter Ackroyd’s 1985 novel Hawksmoor and W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, published in 2001, the genre of the “contemporary London Gothic” has cast a long shadow over the urban imaginary. It encourages us to look at the city as a “necropolis,” a palimpsest of layered pasts which one moves through like a graveyard, attempting to decipher the stones’ faded inscriptions. The idea is to instill a quasi-mythic sense of genius loci—a sense of atmosphere—yet it can also make the place feel rather oppressively anxious.
The same thing is true of studies like Laqueur’s: like Marx and Engels before him, Laqueur sets his investigation largely in England because, apparently, “the world we have lost began to go missing there earlier than almost anywhere else.” Although he is referring to the early emergence of industrialization, his comments on “the attenuation of face-to-face relationships” seem excessively dismal. One imagines a land full of characters like Dante’s false prophets, punished in the Inferno by having their heads facing behind them so that they are continually falling over. The dead clearly do exercise an influence over our imagination of urban space, but why does this have to resolve into the disorientating, uncanny sensation of being followed? There must be ways of living with death that aren’t so insistently haunting, or ways of looking backwards that don’t ignore what’s up ahead.
The nineteenth century was busy building cemeteries and ghost trains, challenging convention; the twentieth has been less progressive. Its architectures of death are overwhelmingly associated with barbarism and atrocity: the dispiriting outlines of the huts at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the crisp glass lines of Ground Zero. More everyday funerary practices seem to have been left by the wayside. Perhaps our failings in this regard are, at least partly, a by-product of an emphasis on urban regeneration, which has also been backward-looking, focusing on converting preexisting “dead space” into “living space” rather than creating new spaces as such.
The canonical texts of urban renewal certainly have little to say about death. Jane Jacobs’s seminal The Death and Life of Great American Cities, for example, encourages the same kind of attentiveness to the local and particular that writers like Sebald and Sinclair would later exhibit, yet it barely mentions burial grounds. “Death” remains strictly metaphorical, and “dead” refers almost exclusively to failed space. Jacobs does acknowledge the strangeness of the received idea that death should be “an unnoticeable or unmentionable part of city life.” Yet the only time she discusses it directly is in the observation that a funeral parlor in Greenwich Village “seems to have been no deterrent to the families who have put money into the rehabilitation of town houses on the street.” The funeral parlor is viewed as a bothersome amenity, like the municipal recycling depot or sewage works: we acknowledge that it has to exist, and that its presence is a valuable one for the community, but we’d rather not live right next door to it.
This is a long way from Harrison’s and Laqueur’s idea that proximity with death is a precondition of proper dwelling. It illustrates a gap between the way we actually live and the way we like to think that we do. But this gap is narrowed—quite literally—by the fact that buildings eventually turn into ruins. Our fascination with this process of weathering and decay has long helped us come to terms with the fact that our memories, given time, tend to wither, gradually repairing the wound that first opens up when a loved one passes away. In the recent past it has also eased the transition of Victorian cemeteries from private speculations to (mostly) public parks—a transition that often fosters an indulgent approach to dilapidation, not least because of its inflationary impact on the values of nearby homes. Many cemeteries now have active preservation groups that encourage their reappropriation not just as congenial lunchtime spots but as authentic wildernesses: the presence of the dead is thought to allow for the recognition of nonhuman vitality amid the many forms of flora and fauna that call such places home. What first appears as decay is rearticulated as a verdant and vigorous arena. Schemes like the “Living Churchyards and Cemeteries” project, for example, uphold the pleasing dereliction of cemeteries with organic principles including cultivation “without pesticides, and mowing the grass only once a year—ensuring that birds, reptiles, insects and bats can thrive.”
Popular attention was first brought to this sort of thing by the naturalist Richard Mabey in the Sixties and Seventies. The Unofficial Countryside, Mabey’s best-known book, celebrated the dead spaces of post-industrial cities as the places where wildlife really flourished. Today, his beloved canals and towpaths have been all but fully incorporated into the aesthetic recuperation of what were once materially productive landscapes. Residential canal boats are now a common sight, while decaying warehouses have long since made the familiar transition from artists’ studios to loft-style apartments. As a last outpost against this speculative tide, it’s no wonder that cemeteries are now so relished as wild spaces, or that living churchyards should rail against the boorish conception that burial grounds should be “closely manicured” or that they should make use of “every available space.”
In truth, this kind of thinking is not far from the original rationale of the Victorian cemeteries, which drew on the aesthetic tenets of the “picturesque” movement; the difference today is that these ambitions are mixed with a taste for the organic—a kind of artisanal, pays et terroir sensibility, reconstituting the cemetery as a “sacred ecosystem.” Yet the example of the picturesque should make us suspicious of preservation. Although it began in the eighteenth century as a way of judging paintings, the picturesque aesthetic was soon incorporated into the practice of landscaping itself. The result was a strange kind of feedback loop, making a particular set of highly cultivated tastes seem like natural ones. The preservation of burial grounds as ruins—themselves a key feature of the picturesque—reproduces this pattern, “naturalizing” what began as highly artificial, new spaces. Faced with housing developments that make no attempt to integrate with their surrounding environments, communities have gone on the defensive, and the graveyard has been forced to take up the slack left by indifferent civic planning. Yet the “natural” that it represents has become an ideal, deflecting critical and constructive thinking about how new spaces can be developed in a humane way.
In spring 2013, I witnessed a strange spectacle while walking along the Walworth Road in southeast London. An extensive motorcade came hurtling around the Elephant and Castle, then still a convoluted dual roundabout intersection in a notoriously gritty part of town. It was a funeral procession, with a gleaming black hearse at its center, but the Victorian deaf-mutes had been replaced by dazzling, leather-clad police motorcyclists. In a flash of recognition, I realized that the cortège was that of Margaret Thatcher, who had spent her last months living in the luxurious Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly.
I was struck by the appositeness of the scene: Thatcher had presided over and embodied the viciously anti-urban impulse of 1980s conservatism, dismantling London’s civic government, ushering in the supremacy of the unscrupulous private landlord, and hastening the decay of public amenities like swimming pools and libraries. Her funeral service had been held in full pomp and circumstance at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a fate normally reserved only for royalty, but here she was being rushed straight out of the City and into the welcoming embrace of middle England: the heartland of the Tory vote. As Thatcher’s remains made a graceless and hurried passage through what was then a famously run-down site of concrete and commotion, I imagined her fleeing the decay that she had helped to worsen. It turned out, however, that she had bucked the suburbanizing trend: after a cremation in Kew, her ashes were brought back into town and scattered at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. When it came down to it, she went for efficiency.
Cremation was, until the mid-nineteenth century, considered both a pagan throwback and a criminal offense. Even as it has become normalized enough to be the choice of a British Prime Minister, death’s entrepreneurs have been developing a new spectrum of options, from ecologically engaged choices, which elaborate on the process of bodily decay—having your corpse dressed in a suit that fosters mushroom growth, for example, or turned into a “reef ball” to support marine life—to having your body metamorphosed into a useful or attractive object for your descendants to treasure. The process of having your ashes transmuted into a diamond is now fairly well known, but having them pressed into a vinyl record is a new variant on the same theme. You don’t even need to choose a playlist: opting for silence allows loved ones to simply “hear your pops and crackles.”
These approaches all seem to leave something missing: the sense of local specificity, the sense of place, attached to both burial and the scattering of ashes. This is a problem with long roots: crematoria, for instance, normally shy away from radical architectural form; the first examples were built to resemble religious buildings and give a sense of tradition that was, in fact, absent. But the century or so since then hasn’t seemed to offer much closer thinking: where, after all, are the Frank Gehry mausoleums, or the Richard Rogers charnel houses?
Isolated projects have begun to experiment with new architectures of memorialization. One example is Columbia University’s “DeathLab,” which has seen academics and architects working together to think up “new models of mortuary infrastructure” by blending enquiries into urban planning with questions of ecology and spirituality. The DeathLab’s stated intention is to “augment and eventually supersede current practices and desegregate the landscapes of conventional burial and cremation from active, public terrains.” Many of their schemes involve harnessing and utilizing the energy drawn from the decaying corpse—like a formalized version of the trees growing from graves in Tower Hamlets—to do things like power intricate constellations of lights. Other practical employments of decomposition include extracting water vapor from our remains, sending it through pipes in private viewing rooms and using it to irrigate vegetation in a public “sanctuary.” Such processes are designed to mimic the “stages of grief” while providing public spaces in which to wander and reflect. They are meant to counter the idea of “static stones asserting a false permanence.”
Yet the supposed permanence of stones might always have been a kind of comforting confidence trick that we play on ourselves. And it is probably the very failure of graveyards to assert eternal memory that makes them so moving: especially in an age when we are suddenly equipped with media that does not weather, and whose mnemonic spaces are theoretically limitless. Almost every faded inscription on a grave is the mark of someone who hoped to be remembered in perpetuity but was ultimately forgotten. It’s this counterpoint, standing as an antidote to worldly pride, that moves us in graveyards: “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.”
Art credit: bluejayway76 (CC BY/Flickr)