Last week I spent a very stimulating evening enjoying one of a series of lectures being held at The Last Tuesday Society by the folks behind Morbid Anatomy who are in the UK for a short while. The Last Tuesday Society is a great place to while away a few hours if you are of a curious and sightly eccentric disposition. The little shop of horrors is actually an amazing window on the wonderfully strange variety of life (and death) on the planet. I was there though primarily to meet Joanna Ebenstein who founded Morbid Anatomy. I had got in touch with Joanna after a great lecture she gave last year during the Death exhibition at the Wellcome Collection and she’s kindly helping me with a film project which will explore (I hope) Death’s spiritual significance in a visual and meditative way.
The lecture was entitled “Future Death, Future Bodies and Future Cemeteries” and Dr John Troyer from the Centre for Death & Society at the University of Bath asked us initially to think about what we wanted to do with our bodies after we have died. It’s a really interesting question and not one that I think about that often although maybe I should. I mean I contemplate my death but not what happens to my body afterwards. I guess I think “I’m dead, who cares?” the issue is that after it’s final breath, my body immediately becomes an issue for my family and for society.
I remember reading a book last year exploring curious hidden facts about London and found out that up until the mid 1900’s everyone was buried in their local Parish in the church grounds. This became difficult in London when the numbers of prostitutes, poor and alcoholic reached new levels and the churches no longer had space. According to Wikipedia “In the first half of the 19th century the population of London more than doubled, from a little under a million people in 1801 to almost two and a half million in 1851. The city’s dead had been buried in and around the local churches. With a limited amount of space for burials, the oldest graves were regularly exhumed to free space for new burials. Despite the rapid growth in population, the amount of land set aside for use as graveyards remained unchanged at approximately 300 acres (0.5 sq mi; 1.2 km2), spread across around 200 small sites. Even relatively fresh graves had to be exhumed to free up space for new burials, their contents being unearthed and scattered. Decaying corpses contaminated the water supply, and the city suffered regular epidemics of cholera, smallpox, measles and typhoid. A Royal Commission established in 1842 to investigate the problem concluded that London’s burial grounds had become so overcrowded that it was impossible to dig a new grave without cutting through an existing one. In 1848–49 a cholera epidemic killed 14,601 people in London and overwhelmed the burial system completely.
In the wake of public concerns following the cholera epidemics and the findings of a Royal Commission, the Act to Amend the Laws Concerning the Burial of the Dead in the Metropolis (Burials Act) was passed in 1851. Under the Burials Act, new burials were prohibited in what were then the built-up areas of London.”
The first every purpose built cemetery was then built out in Brookwood in Surrey (called The London Necropolis) it was deemed far enough away not to cause an public hygiene issues and was to use to the new invention of mechanised transport (the railway) to link the cemetery with Waterloo Station. The line had only one stop…(queue Hollywood style voice-over); The Cemetery.
The London Necropolis Railway was therefore opened in 1854 as a reaction to this severe overcrowding in London’s existing graveyards and cemeteries. One of the buildings can still be seen on Westminster Road although much of the line and other buildings were destroyed in the World War II. I think i’m right in saying that some of the buildings to the left of Waterloo’s main entrance were where the terminal once sat.
Nowadays most people (about 75% apparently) get cremated but when cremation was first introduced to this country there was strong opposition on religious grounds. We are largely a secular society now so what we do tends to veer towards the practical and eco friendly, however according to Dr John there are now a range of options available to the recently departed today which include space burials, having your ashes turned into a prescious gem (to be worn by a relative perhaps) and Liquefaction. This last one’s a bit Soylent Green.
The idea of the future cemetery is also interesting. Holographic memorials (traditional memorials are less popular as the dominance of religion fades). In fact there are companies in existence right now who will look after your virtual life, for a fee. Think about it, there are people alive who had a facebook page before they were even born…What happens to all this when they die, all the thousands of photographs etc no-one owns a photo album anymore?
Back to reality, did you know 15,000 bodies are produced in the UK every day – what do we do with them all? It’s a serious question. In New York, apparently things are so bad that for the very poorest who can’t afford to even get a death certificate issued the bodies of relatives are lieterally piling up in the city morgue. The city however can’t dispose of them legally until the death certificate is signed…
Burial is a really interesting topic and is used by academics to define the civillastion of human beings. Before we this simple invention we human beings simply left corpses to rot like other animals did. As Dr John pointed out, this simple act has survived as a one of the greatest inventions of the human species.
Its macabre not to think about this stuff. After all death, whether we like it or not, is inevitable. As a society in the west we seem to want to distance ourselves from this further and further. We all want to stay young and live forever and most of us don’t even know how to spend our Sunday afteernoons! We all know it will happen we just don’t know when. So it’s sensible to talk about this with loved ones and relatives so they know what you want and also so you know what they might want.
After all would they be comfortable to see your body being liquified and used as fertiliser as is beginning to happen in the USA already? Maybe they’d just prefer to munch on a nice box of Soylent Green instead?