Tuesday, 30 August 2016

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

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

Cemetery Symbolism was alive and well in Victorian Era England, and a lot of what we see today in our own Australian Cemeteries harks back to this period, some symbology though has been adapted to Australian conditions, and way of life.
 There is a huge amount of symbology to be found in cemeteries, and it is something have written about previously on my other “Eidolon Blog” 

 From Freemason, Catholic, Anglican and family symbology, to Gothic influenced statues, urns, broken columns, Military, sailing and Egyptian obelisks, there is some great artistry in Victorian Era cemeteries. Catacombs , Family mausoleums and Crypts were also found amongst the grandiose cemeteries that the Victorian Era brought in to being (for South Australian cemetery symbolism you cannot go past West Terrace Cemetery, The Seppelt family mausoleum at Seppeltsfield or the Jesuit Crypt under St Aloysius Church at Sevenhill)

In 1832 the English Parliament passed a bill encouraging the establishment of seven private cemeteries in a ring around outer London. The first to open, in 1832, was Kensal Green, followed by West Norwood (1837), Highgate Cemetery (1839), Nunhead (1840), Brompton (1840), Abney Park (1840), and Tower Hamlets (1841).

 These new cemeteries were seen by the middle class of England as extensions of their social status and a way to immortalise their family names, through monuments to their dead.
 The graves of the period were extremely ornamental and were built to be symbolic of the family, or of the interests of the deceased. One could expect religious symbolism, crosses, Angels, the HIS inscription or passages from the Bible.
 Some would symbolise the working nature of a person, an anchor for a sailor, a horse and whip for a coachman or a sword for a military officer. Other families preferred symbols of death, such as skulls, the reaper or funeral urns.
 What is most curious about a lot of the symbology in early Victorian Cemeteries is how many graves feature pagan, Egyptian or Roman symbology. Perhaps the people of the era did not put too much thought into their choices and chose from only what appealed to them, or perhaps it has a deeper meaning within a family to be represented by a mystical pyramid.
 There was also, amongst some of the religions, such as Methodism and Protestants, not to have anything that could be remotely seen as Catholic inspired upon their graves, forsaking the use of crosses, angels, bibles etc for other things such as torches, wreaths or “holding hands”.
With the slowly rising popularity of cremation, and the upcoming World Wars, Cemetery burials and monuments began to change during the Edwardian period, and today in our age, the modern cemetery is very rarely decorated with such ornate, beautiful imagery as it was in the Victorian Era.

 Next Week: Death in the Victorian Era part 8: Coffins

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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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