Wednesday, February 9, 2011

{review} necropolis

Catharine Arnold Necropolis: London and its Dead (2006)

Necropolis: London and Its Dead Necropolis: London and Its Dead

Hmmm... anyone think it ought to be "London and her Dead"?

This is an easy read - a popular history of the burial grounds and cemeteries of London. It contains a good deal of fascinating information presented in an accessible style and is a nice introduction to the mechanics of dealing with the dead in London from pagan times until the here and now. It is by no means a dry academic tome. Arnold has pulled the plums out of her source material and the book is studded with interesting and often gruesome anecdotes such as that told of the body of Katherine de Valois who "lieth here [Westminster Abbey], in a chest or coffin with a loose cover, to be seen and handled of any who will much desire it." (John Weever, 1631).  Consider, too Pepys, in February 1669:
...here we did see, by particular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois; and I had the upper part of her body in my hands and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen and that it was my birthday, thirty-six years old, that I first kissed a Queen. 
Ewww...
Yuck.
[My comment, not Pepys'!]

One section that I found particular interesting (read 'gruesome') was on the methods of dealing with plague deaths (including those of animals - apparently the average London household had half a dozen cats which had to be slaughtered). It is extraordinary to think how many London landmarks are built on top of plague pits. This has posed some problems for future generations:
At the spot where Brompton Road and Knightsbridge now meet, excavations for the Piccadilly Line between Knightsbridge and South Kensington Underground stations unearthed a pit so dense with human remains that it could not be tunnelled through. This is said to account for the curving nature of the track between the two stations. 
The demise of inner metropolitan burial grounds in the face of huge population growth and the rise of the large (once outer suburban) cemeteries is well covered, with many interesting insights. Arnold's chapters on the Victorians and their dead are particularly strong. I'm still chuckling about the music hall song entitled "They're Moving Grandpa's Grave to Build a Sewer". The dead, we realise from Arnold's book, are still very close to the living in a continuously populated, ever-expanding city like London. 

I have a few quibbles. As I say, this is not an academic tome, but I would have liked a few more references (for example, the passage quoted above on the underground has no reference to the source). I thought there was quite a lot of reliance on Mrs. Isabella Holmes' 1896 survey of the burial grounds of London. In some places there were some irritating 'filler' statements (designed to move the narrative from one subject to another by enlisting the aid of an inapt comparison), some superfluities (do we really need it spelled out that Mrs. Henry Wood was "far from politically correct"?), an odd sentence that wasn't a sentence and - horror! - some dodgy Latin which a quick googling would have sorted out.

But it was, as I said, an easy and fascinating read and it has given me quite a taste for some more death-related reading.

Rating: 6/10.

If you liked this... A really well done book on strategies for dealing with mass death  in history is Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. I highly recommend this book and I must review it soon. I read Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry while I was reading Arnold's book and enjoyed having a bit more information about the development of cemeteries like Highgate. 

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Vintage Civil War Library)  Her Fearful Symmetry

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