Victorian Valhallas: Cemetery Picnics
The Victorians had a very peculiar tradition of picnicking in cemeteries. After the death of Queen Victoria’s hubby in 1861, the entire country donned their mourning attire. For forty years. (To be fair, Victoria only asked her court for three years of goth gear. Moved by her dedication to Prince Albert, they persisted in continuing the tradition until the queen’s death, at which point the custom was put to rest, and so began the Edwardian period in Britain.)
I’d like to say the tendency to accessorize all in black, cover the household mirrors with black crepe, commemorate their loved ones with trinkets of their hair wrapped delicately in lockets, or photographing their remains in very lifelike poses with the remaining members of the family surrounding the body is the subject of this post — in due time, I hope to touch on at least some of this stuff — but today I want you and I to indulge in a time-honoured tradition that I’ve gladly resurrected in my own life:
Picnicking in cemeteries.
So grab a sandwich, and let’s have a little chat about what it was like to die in Victorian London.
A Little Bit of Backstory
While doing research for the book I’ve been working on, I came across a couple of interesting tidbits: London was a foggy, congested, dirty city in the 1800’s. Post-and-during the industrial revolution, thick fogs regularly rolled through due to the mixture of soot and sulfur dioxide from residential chimneys and factories mixing with mist rolling off the Thames. It created the perfect cover for the Jack the Ripper murders, and of course, the climate coupled with a lack of proper sanitation bred pestilence: scarlet fever, cholera, typhus, measles, influenza, diphtheria — you name it, you could die from it.
One in three infants didn’t make it to their first birthday. In a population of 2.3 billion where folks were often buried in churchyards, it’s not hard to imagine that burial grounds got overcrowded pretty quick. Add to that the increasing number of bodies being snatched from their resting places, people occasionally being buried alive (whoops!), and bodies exposed and rotting because they weren’t buried deep enough (two feet was the minimum — a big difference from today, where it ranges anywhere from six to twelve, and sometimes more.) Or worse — they were exhumed too quickly to make room for the fresh dead, and you had the circumstances that you had a case of serious social distress on your hands.
Frankly, cemeteries were thought to be a health hazard; nevermind places that bred nightmares.
The Magnificent Seven
In 1832, British Parliament set up seven private cemeteries that ringed the city that would be:
Beneficial to public morals, to the improvement of manners, but are likewise calculated to extend virtuous and generous feelings… A garden cemetery [modelled after Pere Lachaise in Paris] is the sworn foe to preternatural fear and superstition.
– The Victorian Celebration of Death
This is only ironic to me, because three of the Magnificent Seven are reportedly haunted, and one of them is home to my most favourite vampire legend ever. (EVER. Stay tuned for next week’s post on that.)
Being buried in one of the Magnificent Seven’s cemeteries was a costly affair that demonstrated social status as much as a willingness to commemorate their loved ones in the most ostentatious way possible. As the garden cemeteries appealed to the middle class, attention was paid to the flora, fauna, and even the monuments were (and still are) unprecedented in their elaborateness and elegance. As an art history nerd, 19th century sculpture sends me all a-twitter with excitement; add some verdurous foliage — ivy, creeper, lush hornbeam and yew, cypress, ferns, bluebells, holly — and you have your allocated plot for eternity nestled in a garden where butterflies, bees, foxes, even deer wander through. Victorians thought this treatment “took away the gloom of the grave,” and given the precedent, the Magnificent Seven became veritable paradises on earth.
Dining with the Dead
With mourning tradition at its height as an involved and expensive demonstration of a beloved’s devotion to their departed, it seemed fitting that the pomp of funereally practices culminated in a willingness to spend time in these places, close to the dead, where they slumbered in a place of peace and beauty, separate from the hustle and filth of London town. Designed like public parks, with their Gothic revival mausoleums and Egyptian-inspired colonnades, the cemeteries became a place to spend a Sunday afternoon where families might spread a blanket in a patch of shade, and socialize with others who’d come to visit with their loved ones at rest.
Remember, mourning was de rigeur with such a high mortality rate. While this might seem odd by today’s standards, Victorians romanticized death, being so close to it. While we are removed from the process, given the majority of our exposure to death happens in hospitals, it was commonplace in Victorian England to surround a dying loved one on a deathbed watch in their home, in their bed, hoping to hear their profound final words in the hope to shed some light on the meaning of life before they passed. Mourning and its rituals provided a means of coping with the passage.
Now, I’m no historian by any means, and hell — I don’t even live in the UK. But believe me when I say that on a summer’s day, the best place in the city to read a book is under the shade of weeping willow at the cemetery on the hill with some goat cheese and crusty bread sitting in my icepack, and maybe a bottle of Pinot Gris if I’m feeling super indulgent.
There’s one thing I can assure you, if you’re observing the tradition of the cemetery picnic: the neighbours definitely don’t complain about the company.
For Your Reference:
The Victorian Celebration of Death
by James Stevens Curl
Interesting. Can’t say I love the idea, but can’t say I’m opposed to it either. It’s really not that morbid now that I think about it. I imagine it is very peaceful. 🙂
Kira Butlerkrystal jane
Honestly, I think it depends largely on the cemetery. There are particular places I wouldn’t want to hang around for long, and least of all because they’re *too* creepy. Some locations are just plain unsafe. (New Orleans is a prime example, and I love the cities of the dead. Still, wouldn’t want to hang out with even a cookie for fear of getting robbed.)
Thanks for sharing. I find cemeteries peaceful for walking and jogging. I also enjoy reading the epitaphs and imagining the lives (and deaths) of the individuals.
Kira ButlerSandi Jones
Oh, I’m so glad. Most people tend to shirk away because they’re uncomfortable being so close to the dead, but I’m really happy you’re jogging through!
We get a lot of joggers and cyclists up here because we’re on a hill. (Presents a bit more of a challenge I suppose.)
Love this post Kira! I actually LOVE cemeteries and find myself there often. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I just sit. And a couple of summers ago I went to some movies at the park in my local cemetery. Loved it and I LOVE THIS POST. I didn’t know how it all began.
Technically we can attribute much of the rural cemetery inspiration to Pere Lachaise in Paris. It’s the “first” so to speak; gave rise to quite a few others, inclusive of the Cities of the Dead in New Orleans which are always worth mentioning if there’s a high water table involved which prevents interment.
Where’s your local cemetery at? Depending on where you’re situated, there are usually a few key features worth investigating. (There’s usually a shift in the death iconography on the tombs that denotes the overall attitude towards death of those buried. I find it quite interesting.)
Wish we had movies in the park at the cemetery. All we get are Shakespeare plays with poor execution.
Also, my dad taught me to drive in the cemetery my Grandpa was built in. So, you know. I was already in one in case I really messed up. His words. Not mine.
LOL. And omg.
Cool, it wasn’t just me. My dad also taught me to drive in a cemetery!
T.A. Brock (@TA_Brock)
I totally love cemeteries too. I think they’re peaceful and special. I mean, like a place of honor or something. The final resting place of many incredible (and some who probably weren’t) people. I don’t know… I can wax poetic over cemeteries, lol.
Great post, Kira!
Cait StuffT.A. Brock (@TA_Brock)
I definitely read this as “some who weren’t people”, which I like even better. Who knows what is REALLY buried under that dirt??
T.A. Brock (@TA_Brock)Cait Stuff
Hahaha! It DOES read like that. Ooops. It was late when I commented. But you’re right, no telling what creepy thing rests there!
I like this interpretation. 😛
P.S. Happy Birthday, Cait!
“Some nights I walk home past the gates of Highgate Cemetery.”
[…] spoke a bit about the cemeteries that surround London last week in the hopes to set the stage for the tonight’s legend tripping. Highgate, split into East and […]
Dining with the Dead | Rachel Laudan
[…] And in Britain and the United States in the late nineteenth century, cemeteries were created on the outskirts of towns with the idea that they would be parks as well as …. […]
Bellefontaine Cemetery, The Best Park In St. Louis « Weird Cult(ure)
[…] guide mentioned that during the Victorian Age, cemeteries were more like parks, where families visited their loved ones passed, packed picnics […]
A Lovely Day for a Picnic … with the Dead | The Lineup
[…] of shade, and socialize with others who’d come to visit with their loved ones at rest,” writes Kira Butler of The Midnight […]