Art of Dying Art of Dying_Volume III_joomag | Page 58

SAM PERRIN The Cemetery Club was founded by Sheldon Goodman and Christina Owen in 2013. I was invited to join after giving Sheldon and the Club a tour of a north London cemetery where I volunteered as a guide. The Cemetery Club’s mission is to demystify cemeteries. Sheldon describes cemeteries as “Museums of People/ Libraries of The Dead.” I couldn't agree with him more. I love the architectural style and ambiance of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Guiding tours of these cemeteries is one of the best things I've ever done with my life. At the turn of the 19th century, there was a huge influx of people moving into London. The infrastructure couldn't cope with the number of living, and thus, the subsequent number of dead. In the Victorian era, the general population lived in very close, cramped conditions. The mortality rate spiraled out of control, to the point where the parish churches that traditionally buried the city's dead were unhygienically oversubscribed. As a result, an act of parliament allowed for the establishment of seven large commercial cemeteries in the greater London area, that we refer to as The Magnificent Seven. The first was Kensal Green, which opened in 1833. The last of the Seven, Tower Hamlets, opened in 1841. The cemetery companies were out to make money. The cemeteries were strategically placed and immaculately landscaped. Most of these companies had to pay a tax to the local parish on the dead bodies they took in because the parish graveyards were being put out of business. Highgate, for example, had to pay the local parish 10 shillings per body. So a lot of the money that these commercial ventures made went straight back to the church. Not all of the Magnificent Seven are filled. You find plots that were originally purchased for an entire family— for seven, eight, ten coffins— with only one or two people buried there. Many of these plots were purchased in perpetuity, i.e. the cemetery company would look after it for all eternity— your headstones would be maintained with fresh flowers, surrounding vegetation controlled. The desire to be buried changed with the introduction of cremation. At the end of the 19th century, cremation really started to pick up. By the 1960s and 70s most of the cemetery companies had gone 58 | ART OF DYING