Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Death in the Victorian Era part 6: The Graveyard Walker

Death in the Victorian Era part 6: 
The Graveyard Walker

 The Victorian Era influence of Cemetery design is still felt in Australia today. Our cemeteries here are usually very large, ornate garden styles cemeteries. In South Australia one only has to look at Centennial Park, Smithfield Memorial Park and West Terrace Cemetery to see the influence I am referring too.
 In South Australia’s early days it was common for burials to happen in Church Graveyards, and it was the same in Victorian Era England, the only problem for the English in the last century was, that they had so many deaths, and so few areas set aside for the dead, that graveyards soon became overcrowded.
 Coffins could be stacked on top of each other in 20 foot deep pits, with the top coffin only inches from the surface. Some graves would be dug up, the corpse dismembered, the coffin smashed for firewood to be sold to paupers, and the newly dead, buried in their place. Often the rotting bones and flesh would be sprawled about the cemetery, attracting dogs and rats and other scavengers.

An English Surgeon named George Walker took up residence in Drury Lane at the start of the Victorian Era, and it was through his campaigning that the English public came to realise the their poor treatment of the dead, and the neglect of the cemeteries was contributing to their poor health and the spread of disease.
 Walker’s campaign gained ground in 1839 with the publishing of his “Gatherings in Graveyards” pamphlet which emphasised the problem of the gas emanating from the rotting corpses. The trapped cadaverous vapours would often cause coffins to explode, this was particularly bad for coffins in above ground vaults, or ones exposed to the ground surface, spreading their foul stench and associated disease into the air.
 (It was common in the Victorian era for cemetery workers to drill holes in coffins to stop them expanding and exploding).

 It was because of his influence that many of the Victorian Era graveyards were closed, and new designs, based on the French Pere-la-Chaise Cemetery were adopted through-out England. These cemeteries would be built outside the larger cities and included long tree-lined avenues, ornate iron work and ornate headstones.
 They were a park and memorial place all in one, Walker’s influence back then, can probably be attributed to our own Australian garden cemeteries today.

NEXT WEEK: Death in the Victorian Era part 7: Cemetery Design and Symbolism

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