In 1872, London’s Victorian cemeteries were at their grand peak. The memorials of the great and good were enormous and crammed with symbolism, burial grounds were sculpted like elaborate gardens and funerals were as ostentatious as ever, having all the trappings of the mourning culture of the day.
Kensal Green cemetery had been operational since 1833 (making it the oldest of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries) and was built in such a way as to rival Paris’ grand Père Lachaise, with wide central paths, snaking smaller roads and bold neoclassical architecture.
However, for all Kensal Green’s beauty, the image of it that circulates most frequently today is of an etching from the ‘Illustrated London News’.
Splashed across the front page on Saturday 2ndNovember 1872 was an artistic rendering of the sudden and shocking death of pallbearer Henry Taylor.
Taylor died from crush injuries, resulting from the full weight of a coffin (with body) landing on his jaw and chest.
For the well to do of the 19thcentury, coffins became multi-layered objects and a further opportunity to show one’s class and wealth on the way to the afterlife. While most common coffins consisted of a wooden anthropoidal structure with stamped metal coffin furniture attached to the outside, other burials were heavier affairs.
As the Victorian cemetery developed alongside tastes for extravagance and preferable burial methods, burial vaults enjoyed particular popularity. However, most coffins to be interred in vaults had to consist of a three-layer system, one of which was lead. When all three layers were affixed together, a body laid inside and any additional cloths and furniture attached, it was possible for many of these coffins to weigh up to a quarter of a tonne. At the time of Taylor’s death, coffin straps were not widely used by pallbearers and a tight cemetery path and wet grass was all it took to end his life.
“KILLED BY COFFIN. Dr. Lancaster held an inquest Saturday evening at the University College Hospital, London, on the body Henry Taylor, aged 60. The evidence of E. J. Heading, undertaker’s foreman, and others showed that on the 19th inst. deceased, with others, was engaged at a funeral Kensal-Green Cemetery. The Church service having been finished, the coffin and mourners proceeded in coaches towards the place of burial. The day being damp, the foreman directed the coaches with the mourners to proceed to the grave by the foot-way, and the hearse across the grass towards a grave-digger, who was motioning the nearest way. The coffin was moved from the hearse and being carried down a path only three feet six wide, by six bearers, when orders were given to turn, so that the coffin, which was what is known in the trade as a four pound leaden one, should head first. While the men were changing, it is supposed that deceased caught his foot against a side stone and stumbled ; the other bearers, to save themselves, let the coffin go, and it fell with great force on to deceased, fracturing his jaws and ribs. The greatest confusion was created among the mourners who witnessed the accident, and the widow of the person about to be buried nearly went into hysterics. Further assistance having been procured the burial service was proceeded with, while deceased was conveyed to a surgery, and ultimately to the abovementioned hospital, where he expired on the 24th inst. The jury recommended that straps should be placed round coffins, which would tend to prevent such accidents. Verdict—accidental death. “
Sheldon Goodman of ‘The Cemetery Club’ has done some great research on the realities of Taylor’s death and also the location of his final resting place, which was – relievedly – Highgate, rather than Kensal Green.
Similarly, contemporaneous sensationalist reporting had somewhat twisted the realities of Taylor’s demise, with Goodman explaining that:
“It’s also interesting to know that a friend of his for over three decades (and more importantly, fellow pall-bearer) felt compelled to set the story straight in the Evening Standard as to how the accident happened, after its initial publication. According to ‘G.A.N’, Henry was carrying the feet-end of the coffin but was asked to take the head: as he changed position he tripped over his colleague’s feet and this caused an imbalance which led to the coffin’s dropping. They did not simply leave the coffin and allow him to be crushed. ‘Not allow[ing] it to go forth that we were totally and callously unmindful of the life of a fellow creature‘ he would very firmly write, G.A.N sought to limit the unpleasantness such sensationalist writing would inflict on Henry’s family.”