Buried Alive! A short history of premature burial and safety coffins

Taphophobia. The fear of being buried alive. The subject of nightmares since time immemorial. With today’s modern medicine, there’s little chance of these fears becoming reality, however, for many centuries, it was a very real threat.

There have been instances of premature burial for centuries; with apocryphal accounts of the presumed-dead clawing themselves out of their coffins. However, the fear of premature burial really reached its peak in the 18thand 19thcenturies.

Coffin-bell

In 1896, social reformer and bearded anti-vaxxer (those have existed for centuries too) William Tebb, co-founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial with fellow germ-denier Walter Hadwen. The association campaigned for burial reforms to ensure the dead were truly, irrevocably dead. Due to the catatonic side effects of diseases such as cholera and malaria, newspapers were filled with accounts of prematurely buried individuals, subsequently dying in unimaginably traumatic ways.

‘WeirdHistorian.com’ cites an instance from the July 22nd, 1890 edition of ‘The Undertaker’s Journal’ where a woman was buried alive –

The body of a woman, named Lavrinia Merli, a peasant, who was supposed to have died from hysterics, was placed in a vault on Thursday, 3rd July. On Saturday evening it was found that the woman had regained consciousness, had torn her grave-clothes in her struggles, had turned completely over in the coffin, and had given birth to a seven-month-old child. Both mother and child were dead when the coffin was opened for the last time.’

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Front Page of Tebb’s ‘Premature Burial’

Together with Edward Perry Vollum, who was nearly buried alive himself, the two men published a book titled ‘Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented’. The work consisted of suggestions of safety measures and several accounts of individuals later being discovered to have been buried alive. The association distributed this work alongside others of a similarity, such as ‘A Plan for Forming Associations for the Prevention of the Burial of Persons Alive, by an Army surgeon, and The Absolute Signs of Death, and the Prevention of Premature Burial, by the eminent British physician, Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, F.R.S.’[1]

However, ‘Premature Burial’ is the most gripping of all the Association’s efforts. It remains in print to this day and is as frightening to the contemporary reader as it would have been to the Victorian taphophobe. The Paris Review recorded the lasting horror in these accounts of suffering. ‘There’s the man who sank into such a prolonged lethargy that he was thought dead until he “broke into a profuse sweat” in his coffin; the young woman whose corpse was exhumed for reburial only to be discovered “in the middle of the vault, with dishevelled hair and the linen torn to pieces … gnawed in her agony”[2]

If anything, the work concerns itself with exhumation as much as it does interment, suggested than many Victorian cemeteries were hives of questionable activity throughout their working day!

Considering that death and burial weren’t widely regulated industries, many accounts of premature burial occurred because of misdiagnosis of death by a non-medical individual. Subsequently, the association repeatedly campaigned for parliament to put new regulations in place, requiring a medical professional to confirm death before the body was handled by an undertaker. Previously, death certificates had been widely issued by doctors who had not examined the body, which seems utterly ludicrous to our modern sensibilities. After years of efforts, Tebb was still frequently dismissed by the wider medical community and remained a staunch campaigner for burial reform until his death in 1917. In Tebb’s will, he explicitly stated that his body could only be disposed of following ‘unmistakable evidence of decomposition’. He was cremated a week after his death.

 

Tebb’s death aside, premature burial required very real preventative inventions. In the 19thcentury, this commonly took the form of elaborate coffin mechanisms. The second version of ‘Premature Burial…’ included a handful of elaborate coffin mechanisms to assist the nearly-dead. The first, by Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnick, was presented in 1897 following his supposed experience of witnessing a Belgian girl be buried alive. Tebb and Vollum describe the invention as follows –

“…it consists of a long tube, about three and a half inches’ diameter, and a hermetically-sealed box.  The tube is fixed into an aperture in the coffin as soon as the latter is lowered into the grave.  No gases can escape from the tomb into the outer air, as the metallic box into which the upper end of the tube enters cannot be opened from the outside.

On the chest of the supposed dead body is placed a glass ball, several inches in diameter, attached to a spring which communicates through the tube with an iron box above ground.

On the slightest movement of the chest’s wall, as in the act of marked breathing, or movement of the body, the glass ball releases a spring which causes the lid of the iron box to fly open immediately, thus admitting both air and light to the coffin.  At the same time a flag rises perpendicularly about four feet above the ground, and a bell is set ringing which continues for about half an hour.  In front of the box, an electric lamp burns which gives light after sunset to the coffin below.  The tube acts as a speaking tube, and the voice of the inmate of the coffin, however feeble is intensified.”[3]

In short, Karnice-Karnicks invention is an elaborate jack-in-a-box system. However bizarre the mechanisms sound, the coffin system was tested and proven to be a great success when tested on the living. Yet while the dead do not breathe, they decompose. While the glass ball was supposed to be activated by breathing, it was equally as efficient at detecting the bloating and rotting of the dead. To avoid a run of unnecessary exhumations and cemetery flag-flying, the invention was not a success.

C. H. Eseinbrandt coffin

Before complicated coffin systems, earlier methods of prevention consisted of a simple cord attached to a bell, or similar method used to attract outside attention. Flags, ladders and minor explosions were all popularised, but most had foregone the inclusion of a breathing tube, making them all rather redundant.

In the 1820s, so-called ‘portable death chambers’ were popularised in Germany. These chambers were constructed over open graves and were furnished with a bell and viewing window. If the bell was rung, the body could be immediately exhumed, meanwhile ‘watchmen’ could peer into the chamber to search for signs of decomposition.

In 1829, fellow German Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger invented a system of strings and bells attached to the body’s extremities. Yet, as with Karnice-Karnick’s later invention, natural decomposition and shifting of the body could frequently cause false positive results, rendering the bells, once again, inconsequential.

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Several other inventions, including one in 1995 that required an intercom system, were patented, but ultimately proved pointless. There appear to be no official records of anyone being saved from a safety coffin and the western popularisation of embalming rendered any chance of post- ‘death’ survival ultimately impossible.

However, the fear remains. Despite modern medicine and developments in burial reform, the terror of waking up in a coffin is perpetually repeated in popular culture. Most recently, the horror film ‘The Nun’ featured coffin bells as a questionable plot point, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself had to fight her way out of a coffin in the 2000s. As long as we fear the grave, our dead will never truly stay buried.

 

 

Sources:

http://www.weirdhistorian.com/proper-care-for-the-not-quite-dead-yet-the-london-association-for-the-prevention-of-premature-burial/

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/01/06/im-not-dead-yet/

http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2013/02/item-of-the-month-february-2012-premature-burial/

https://www.amusingplanet.com/2017/02/the-grave-with-window.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Safety_coffin

Footnotes:

[1]http://www.weirdhistorian.com/proper-care-for-the-not-quite-dead-yet-the-london-association-for-the-prevention-of-premature-burial/

[2]https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/01/06/im-not-dead-yet/

[3]Premature Burial, 1905, pp321-322)

 

In Praise of Death Stationery

In western cultures, after a death, we are often informed by social media or through a text or phone call. For the common man, there’s no need for printed invites and those attending the service often know of time and place from similar means. As far as printed ephemera goes, most organised funerals present attendees with an order of service; hymns, poems, prayers and the like, alongside the name and photograph of the deceased. If you’re particularly unlucky, they might include a questionable poem written by a family member in dodgy rhyming couplets. But how many of us have retained these pamphlets throughout our grief?

Printed invites are for weddings and birthdays. They’re obtained in bulk from private printing companies that print twee family canvas pictures and promotional booklets alongside your booklet of grief. We use images and choose words carefully; most are desperately personal. And they end up left behind or in the bin.

But for our ancestors, funeral invitations and memorial cards were a keepsake in themselves. They were retained after the funeral, kept in books, boxes and between the pages of family bibles. However, to the contemporary death-historian or morbidly-minded hoarder, they’re a staple piece of a collection that snowballs.

The funeral itself is historically the most important part of western death rituals, and invitations and memorial keepsakes have been an extension of this.  While memorial or so-called ‘funeral cards’ are most associated with the 19thand early 20thcentury, there are beautifully elaborate examples dating back to the 17thand 18thcenturies. These cards were most commonly used as funeral invitations and are among the rarer and most attractive of death-associated collectables.

Many early examples were engraved in wood with a surround incorporating traditional reminders of mortality; skeletons, crossed bones, hour-glasses etc. Families with even greater wealth could choose to commission far larger invitations from copper.

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19th Century Memorial Card [Personal Collection]
By the Victorian age, fashions had changed from direct invitations to a funeral to small memorial cards which provided basic details as to the name of the deceased and the date of forthcoming funeral.

From the 1840s to approximately the 1870s, cards became hugely elaborate works of art in pierced paper and (still!) sometimes wood. In the world of Victorian death ephemera, it is through these that the Victorian obsession with funerary symbolism is easiest to recognise.

Memorial cards were often one of the first indicators of grief and one of the last reminders, subsequently, there were innumerable design options on offer. In early, costly cards, some might feature a plethora of symbols; broken columns, urns, weeping angels, and broken flowers – all of which carry their own symbolic meaning relating to death, grief and the afterlife.

By the turn of the century, and the advent of the industrial revolution (and subsequent development in printing methods), the public began to favour a smaller folding card that was lithographed with a singular simple image, such as lilies, crosses or a short bible verse, often with glimpses of silver and grey.

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19th Century Memorial Card with Undertaker’s Details [via The Cowkeeper’s Wish]
These more basic cards were easily obtained from several sources. Set designs could be ordered from a book, much like an Avon catalogue of misery. They could also be bought from the funeral directors themselves. In obtaining them from this source, they could be supplied for cut price or free, if the funeral director was able to advertise his services at the bottom of the card.

Funeral invitations for prominent and wealthy individuals often operated as tickets, as though the funeral was some exclusive concert. These often stated the requirement to ‘bring the ticket’ to the funeral to avoid overcrowding.

Public funerals of royalty or statesmen were obviously different affairs; funeral cards were specifically designed as keepsakes and backed for framing, but were also produced in several class tiers. For example, the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852 had twelve levels of admission; officials, important statesmen and family had engraved tickets sealed in black wax, whereas, at the other end of the scale, the public – at least those who were able to afford a ticket to the event – found their card to be a plain printed affair.

Funeral ephemera relating to such big deaths was also mass produced as public souvenirs. Alongside official invitations to the event, handkerchiefs, pins and facsimile postcards were widely circulated as accessible keepsakes.

While decoration began to simplify towards the end of the century, the common thread in mourning stationery continued to be the feature of a black border framing a white background. This black border was carried throughout all mourning stationery, and is frequently used today.

While mourning cards and stationery may not appear to be the most exciting of mourning practises, it shows how much of an enormous business grieving was.

 

In sending a death notice through the post, the black edging would be prominent, meaning the nature of the letter that landed on your mat was very clear. Similarly, when writing any letters within the period of mourning, your situation was immediately visible through your usage of such a simplistic border. These borders, much like wider Victorian mourning regulations, changed in size and density depending on the immediacy of the death. In a letter to the Royal Academy from the son of pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, a thick border is visible, showing that the death affecting him has been recent. Over time, these correspondences would sport a smaller border, until eventually, the family could return to their previous letterheads.

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As the 20thcentury thundered into the 21st, these smaller cards retained a sense of simplicity, but grew somewhat, leaving us with the pamphlets we’re so used to in contemporary grief. It could be tempting to assume that pamphlets will soon go the way of the mourning card, being replaced by some technological alternative. However, considering we live in an increasingly ‘emotionally open’ society, perhaps the draw of a delicate keepsake will return us to a world of pierced paper urns and black borders. Besides, who doesn’t love a bit of new stationery?

 

Hidden Treasures of Arnos Vale – A Visitor’s Perspective

[NOTE: This post first appeared on arnosvale.org.uk as a guest article]

 

It is no secret that I love Arnos Vale. Since moving to Bristol, I have spent many days traipsing its winding paths, admiring the headstones and, of course, drinking its coffee. My social media is filled with images of mossy headstones and stone angels, and there are few events in the Spielman Centre that haven’t piqued my interest.

But, despite my frequent visits, each time I walk through the lanes, I am met with a new symbol, a new flower or a new artefact I had yet to notice. Arnos may well be a historical site, but it changes so drastically with the seasons, it would be foolish to think you knew the cemetery at all.

Arnos Vale is simultaneously a working cemetery, a heritage site, a habitat and a veritable art gallery of historical remembrance. To write a thorough guide to all that Arnos offers would probably take until my own death. So, before I dash to choose my own headstone, please enjoy a rather abridged guide to the hidden treasures of Bristol’s finest cemetery.

Many of us take shortcuts through cemeteries on our way to work or as a cut-through to the shops, which makes it so easy to skim over the sheer variety and beauty of headstones.

While Arnos has been accepting burials since its creation in 1837, many of its older interments are easy to spot, thanks to the elaborate memorial choices of the Victorian Era.

 

The Victorian interest in symbols and speaking without words particularly took root in the world of grave and monument ornamentation. Alongside names and dates, 19thcentury headstones are often topped by a carving – hands, flowers, birds etc., each possessing a hidden message of their own. There are hundreds to list, but a few popular symbols are –

  • Hands – These are one of the most varied carvings out there, each gesture symbolising something different about the deceased. A few variations are:
    • Shaking Hands represent a farewell to earthly life. Often these have distinguishable male and female (lacy/frilly) cuffs which may denote a spouse left behind.
    • Pointing upwards infers that the deceased has ascended to heaven.
    • Pointing down DOESN’T mean the opposite! This often represents a sudden death, the hand being that of God.
  • Ivy and/or Grapes – As ivy is evergreen and can continue to thrive on dead trees, it is a plant that has come to represent the immortal soul. Also, it was often used as a Victorian shorthand for friendship and remembrance.
  • Lilies – Much like hands, lilies have a plethora of meanings.
    • Lilies in general represent death and mourning.
    • Lily of the Valley, however, represents a return of happiness.
    • The Victorians loved using flowers as a means of expressing their emotions, (both positive and negative!) so lilies outside of the cemetery context can be tricky to decipher.
  • Butterflies – These delicate carvings, often accompanying a cut flower, represent resurrection. These are often found on memorials to the young and are particularly poignant.

 

It is such a thrill to walk through a cemetery or churchyard and feel as though you are privy to some secret insight into the past. I absolutely urge any visitors, especially those with families in tow, to take time to search for these symbols and decipher them along the way. Spotting pictures and imagining the stories behind the woodland burials is a healthy and creative way to engage with your surroundings and feel less detached from centuries of fascinating lives that are waiting to be rediscovered and reimagined.

Arnos has thousands of these symbols, intricately carved into headstones and tombs – however, larger Victorian monuments hold similar hidden meanings and are rather easier to spot from the paths!

There are some beautiful column memorials within Arnos Vale, a particularly clear example being visible just opposite the cloisters. This column, standing over 6 feet in height, looks as though a mason has cruelly chiselled it in two. However, a broken column represents a life cut short. Other columns closer to the Anglican Chapel feature broken columns with wreaths, which show victory over death.

Obelisks, huge tombs and angels often afforded the grieving family more space to memorialise the deceased and often feature whole paragraphs of achievements and addresses. These are often thought-provoking and, should you be inclined, easy to research further. As such huge monuments were incredibly costly in their day, the financial, political or historical status of the deceased means you are a mere click or two away from a wealth of information.

Should you not be feeling especially ‘outdoorsy’, Arnos’ buildings are filled with fascinating artefacts and exhibitions. The museum opposite the West Lodge is always worth a visit and the Anglican chapel is a beautifully serene structure that shines out as a love letter to conservation done right! However, it is in the depths of the Spielman Centre (accessible via the stairs in the Atrium) that a true hidden treasure is kept.

Arnos-Vale-Woodland-Burial-Hidden-Treasures

In a large glass-topped case lies Arnos Vale’s own ‘Immortelle’, a curious painted plaster wreath of flowers which was uncovered during conservation efforts in recent years. ‘Immortelles’, from the French word for ‘everlasting’, were popular grave decorations from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These were mass-produced, brightly painted ceramic or plaster flowers that were left as a permanent memorial at the grave site and could survive far longer than their organic counterparts.

While not biodegradable, many of these ceramic wreaths have been lost to vandalism, theft and the rough hands of time. The few that survive in the UK have been taken into the care of museums and private collectors, so are difficult to track down. For a piece that spent around a century under a protective blanket of soil and moss, Arnos’ example is a stunning treat for the eyes.

Keeping our thoughts on subterranean treats, it would be foolish not to spend a little time on Arnos Vale’s famous nocturnal inhabitants, bats!

Bat walks throughout the year are fantastic experiences for all ages – they help nurture a love for nature and conservation, but also dispel any silly myths about one of Britain’s most endangered and beautiful native species.

To end on a lighter note, it is no surprise that Arnos Vale is incredibly popular as a unique wedding venue and forest school. Its peaceful woodland setting, wildflowers, birds and nocturnal creatures offer an idyllic moment of quiet clarity from the city’s roar.

Arnos has a wonderful variety of British trees, from high, swaying poplars to mighty pines, many housing tawny owls, buzzards and song birds whose calls carry across the cemeteries’ 45 acres!

While operating as a habitat for larger animals such as badgers, there are several examples of micro habitats within its grounds – a simple wall leading from the war graves by Soldiers’ Corner may at first seem little more than a structural or architectural feature. However, the bricks and foliage offer an ideal habitat for smaller animals, such as reptiles like slow worms and common lizards.

To walk the Victorian cobbled path (just down from the top lodge) while holding a handrail, crafted from Arnos’ own Ash saplings shows a considered approach to conservation that many heritage sites can only hope to mimic.

I won’t spoil any more of Arnos’ secrets for you, but be sure to find some of your own during your next visit. And if you spy me lurking between the graves, hunting for a butterfly or carved hand, don’t worry, you’ll be doing the same before you know it!

Elizabeth Siddal – The Exhumed Muse

The 11th February marks the 157th anniversary of Lizzie Siddal’s death. While not exactly a household name, she is an icon, a muse, an artist and a beautifully tragic figure of the Victorian art world. Similarly, while the 157thanniversary of anything isn’t cause for great celebration, it is a welcome chance to introduce Lizzie to a new audience.

Like most women with an over-dramatic bent, I have had an affinity for Pre-Raphaelite muses since my teens. Lizzie Siddal with her flame-red hair and tragic life, became an icon of my own. Her life was fraught with turmoil, betrayal and beautiful art; she was celebrated as a model and is immortalised in some of the world’s most famous artworks.

Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais
Ophelia 1851-2 by Sir John Everett Millais

Elizabeth Siddal was ‘discovered’ in her youth by the artist Walter Deverell, who saw her working as a shop girl in a milliner’s. In 1850 Deverell went on to paint her as Viola in Twelfth Night, however she was quickly accosted by the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, with whom she sat for several seminal works. Through her association with the group, she is most commonly known because of her depiction of Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Famously, while sitting for Ophelia in an iron bath, the candles warming the water extinguished. While Millais was too engrossed in his work to notice, Lizzie was too dedicated to complain, and as a result of her silence, she developed pneumonia and lay close to death for several weeks.

 

Siddal has long been a tragic, romantic figure due to her association with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a pre-Raphaelite artist, poet, and philanderer. Their relationship was intense, dramatic and troubled; they were involved on and off for over a decade, before they finally married. Following the trauma and depression following a stillbirth, Lizzie’s addiction to the opiate Laudanum spiralled and she died in 1862, aged just 32.

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Lizzie was buried in Highgate Cemetery in the Rossetti family plot. She shares her resting place with Dante Rossetti’s parents, sister Christina and several other family members.

 

Dante, wracked with guilt and sadness, buried Lizzie alongside the only manuscript of his poems, tucked into her auburn hair. This was supposedly a last sign of devotion from her straying husband, an apology for what trauma he may have caused and that the finest of his works would lay with her, and her alone, for all eternity.

However, Lizzie’s undisturbed sleep only lasted for several years, before Rossetti’s ego came knocking. His unpublished works troubled him and, under cover of lamp light, Lizzie was exhumed. Rumour spread that when her coffin was opened, it was filled with her endless, flowing red hair that had continued to grow after her death.

While this is a biological impossibility, the image caught hold in the public imagination and only helped to increase her post-mortem longevity in popular culture.

 

Rossetti’s poems and sonnets were all later published. A large chunk of sonnets under the title ‘The House of Life’, which is often argued to be his greatest written work, if a little erotic for Victorian sensibilities.

When Rossetti himself died in 1882, he was buried in Birchington-on-Sea in Kent and Lizzie was free from any further disturbance.

2012 Photograph of Lizzie's Grave
2012 Photograph of Lizzie’s Grave

In 2012 I took a long-overdue trip to Lizzie’s final resting place at Highgate Cemetery where her grave, now off the beaten path, covered with dead leaves, was only accessible by special request of the tour guide. Nonetheless, to see her name in stone and to be able to pay tribute to a life cut short was worth the train fare alone.

 

Elizabeth Siddal’s life is so fascinating and varied that I implore you to read some of the following links to learn more about her. While a tragic figure, primarily defined by the male gaze, she was an artist and a writer in her own right and deserves to be more widely appreciated.

_______________

 

[Should you wish to visit Elizabeth’s grave – Old Highgate is now too overgrown and brittle for visitors to enter unattended, but tours are frequent and many of Highgate’s highlights are offered. But the urge to run off unsupervised, like a naughty morbid toddler is almost crippling.]

 

LINKS:

 

http://lizziesiddal.com/portal/

 

https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/elizabeth-eleanor-siddal-494

 

http://fannycornforth.blogspot.com(Primarily concerning Fanny Cornforth, but is an excellent resource and Kirstie’s books are great reads.)

Introducing Immortelles

When considering grave decorations, we in western cultures generally think of framed photographs, plastic flowers and weather-worn teddy bears. Our ideas of remembrance and sentimentality are generally personalised and frequently mimic the gifts we’d leave the individual in life.

Passing through any contemporary burial site will bring you to piles of ribbons, laminated poems and unsmoked cigarettes. Alongside these personal effects nestle ornaments of cherubs, resin angels and plastic flowers. These mass-produced indicators of loss and grief are only a small step away from our forebears mourning efforts – while rising costs and health and safety may forbid the erection of a four-foot angel statue, a high street florist can sell you a small cherub and still leave you with change from £10.

While stone cherubs and angels last indefinitely, flowers are the most common decoration in mourning, retaining their place by the graveside for centuries. Flowers may well be a traditional necessity of sorts, but they have a limited lifespan. Plastic flowers may last longer, but discolour and weather over time and similarly must be replaced. However, Victorian ‘Immortelles’ (from the French word for ‘everlasting’) offered a more lasting floral graveside option.

The term ‘Immortelles’ generally refers to the huge beaded wreaths left at gravesides predominantly in western Europe, particularly France. These wire-wrapped, beaded creations could reach up to four feet in diameter and were generally displayed above a mausoleum or tomb. While not directly personalised for the interred person, these wreaths incorporated flower motifs, words, crosses and even preserved flowers in domes.

Over time, the fine wire securing the beads would weather and disintegrate, leaving the immortelle as a pile of black beads, ready to be reused for another project or simply lost and scattered to time.

‘Immortelle’ is also applied to ceramic and glass-domed wreaths that were particularly popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These were mass-produced, brightly painted ceramic or plaster flowers that were left as a permanent memorial at the grave site and could survive far longer than their organic counterparts.

While not biodegradable, many of these ceramic wreaths have been lost to vandalism, theft and the rough hands of time. The few that survive in the UK have been taken into the care of museums and private collectors, so are difficult to track down.

Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery has a beautiful Immortelle on display beneath their Spielman centre which was uncovered several years ago while clearing a grave site. Arnos employee and academic Janine Marriott reported that ‘The plaster wreath got covered in dirt and leaf debris during the years Arnos Vale was neglected which actually protected this delicate item from animals, vandalism and weather.  Once it was lifted from the grave, it was then cleaned and repaired before being returned to the archives in the cemetery.’

The wreath now sits pride of place in their cemetery where it may be enjoyed for generations to come. Similarly, Market Lavington museum in Devizes has two beautiful immortelles in their possession which were in situ until the 1930s. These differ from the Arnos wreath as they were protected from the elements by both glass domes and external cages.

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While wreaths are most common, much like contemporary mourners, many Victorian and Edwardian mourners chose to decorate graves with plaster motifs such as clasped hands, bibles, singular flowers and birds. These are far more commonplace in historical cemeteries as they generally lay lower and flatter to the grave, meaning that if vegetation takes hold, they are protected from the elements far better than a glass dome or brittle petal. It is these simplistic monuments that most mimic our modern cherubs and sentimental carved stones.

Are there any immortelles in cemeteries or museums near you?

 

 

https://kaionegal.typepad.com/the_art_of_nothing/2012/08/french-generals-chateau-getaway-day-1st-antonins-cemetery.html

 

https://arnosvale.org.uk/life-death-and-the-rest-logo/

 

https://marketlavingtonmuseum.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/an-immortelle/

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/545865954/memento-mori-grave-funeral-victorian

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/658389548/rare-victorian-cemetary-grave-immortelle?ref=landingpage_similar_listing_top-1

 

https://time4us2retire.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/our-treasures-immortelle/

The World of Victorian Grave Dolls

After experiencing the death of a loved one, especially those who pass away in the midst of infancy or youth, our mourning practises may include collecting mementos, old photographs, writing diaries. And of course, you might make a full-sized effigy of the deceased to place in their room.

 

In the 19thcentury, death played far a greater role in everyday life. Children and adults were frequently and openly exposed to death and deceased loved ones. As we know through examples of hair jewellery, post-mortem photography and death masks, methods of remembrance and memorialisation could be far more direct and graphic. Hair bracelets and wax heads aside, Victorian mourning dolls are one of the more overlooked element of the Victorian grief process.

1860s Wax Mourning Doll
1860s Wax Mourning Doll

By the tail end of the 19thcentury, it was customary for the family of a deceased child to leave a doll at the gravesite. Of course, leaving toys at the grave of a child remains familiar sight, but ‘mourning dolls’ were no shop-bought playthings.

 

The life of the Mourning Doll began at the funeral/wake of the infant, where a wax likeness was made and presented in the child’s own clothes. Often, the doll’s realism was enhanced by wearing cuttings of the child’s own hair. Frequently pictured lying with the deceased on their deathbed, they were also displayed in miniature coffins as an idealised image of peaceful death. Considering that many infant mortalities were caused by disfiguring and draining illnesses such as smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria, the doll offered an idealised reality of their loss. While their child may have departed gaunt and bloody, the wax effigy would look as though it had simply closed its eyes and gone to sleep.

 

Subsequently, these peaceful dolls were often sculpted with flat backs and heads to ease placement in frames, coffins and at the graveside. As the years passed, tastes changes and weather and vandalism played their part, many of these dolls were left and scattered with the years.

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Grave decoration, aside from the obvious towering monuments, was commonplace in the Victorian era. Ceramic hands, books, flowers and wreaths were often placed on graves from the 19thcentury and beyond. These, like most Victorian methods of memorialisation, were rich with symbolism. Many French cemeteries popularised beaded ‘Immortelles’, which were beautifully beaded wreaths which slowly disintegrated into piles of glistening beads over time.

 

However, those that survive today had very different treatments; they were not left open to the elements, but were often kept at home, displayed in the bed of the deceased and cared for and re-dressed as though they were the deceased. To mimic the feel of a real child, these dolls were weighted with sand and heavy cloth. In some ways, these wax infants seem not unlike the popular ‘re-born’ dolls of today, where hyper-realistic silicon babies are collected by doll enthusiasts and grieving parents alike.

 

Those that remain today were preserved in large glass boxes and, typically, depict a child between 0-3 years. Older children tend to have been depicted merely from the shoulders up – Which is understandable from a cost and size perspective! A wax baby might be comforting; a six foot wax teenager is the stuff of nightmares.

little-girls-would-practice-mourning-with-funeral-dolls-photo-u1

Wax likenesses weren’t the only death-related dolls associated with Victorian children. In life, many little girls were presented with so-called ‘Death Kits’, which included a doll and miniature coffin. In play, the child would then ‘practice dressing the doll, laying it out for visitation, placing it in the coffin, and facilitating a funeral. She might also be expected to practise attending to the grief of the doll’s mourners.’ So says The Order of the Good Death’s Louise Hung.

 

These dolls were ideal primers for young women who, should they survive to adulthood, would almost certainly be called upon to care for their own dead.

 

As mortality rates decreased, tastes changed and wartime reduced the popularity of excessive or overly-materialistic mourning, wax dolls lost their popularity. Today, many of us find realistic likenesses unnerving or macabre, but feel compelled to decorate graves with cherubs and photographic likenesses. The days of the wax child may be over, but I’d keep an eye on the ceramic toddler…

 

 

 

Sources

https://victoriantraditions.blogspot.com/2016/04/wax-dolls-montanari-and-pierotti-dolls.html

 

http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/cabinet-curiosities-victorian-death-dolls

 

http://www.inherited-values.com/2016/10/the-lovely-disturbing-the-history-of-wax-dolls/

 

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4814519.kirsty_stonell_walker/blog?page=13

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_mourning_dolls

A Short History of British Screaming Skulls

 

While sounding like a high-school punk band, screaming skulls are a not-uncommon element woven through the rich British tapestry of haunted body parts.

Screaming, or more specifically, haunted skulls make their home in several towns throughout England.

These skulls need not necessarily be attached to a body, but rather exist independently from their corporeal form. Rather than aimless haunting, or haunting in more attractive surroundings, it is said that these skulls are emotionally linked to the houses in which they wish to continue to live.

 

Screaming Skulls are most commonly attributed to those who suffered religious persecution during the Henry VIII’s 16thCentury Reformation, or under Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads during the English Civil war in the 17thCentury. Immediately prior to their death/undoubtedly violent murder, all owners of future haunted skulls professed that they wished to be buried within the walls of the house in which they lay. When these wishes were ignored and the persecuted individual was laid to rest in a grave, vault or in undesired grounds, the spirit fought back.

Inhabitants of these houses reported strange noises; bangs, crashes and moans and various ‘unexplained happenings’. Once the houses’ occupants made the connection between the noises and the deceased, they frequently disinterred the skull, returning it to the homestead. While the skull rests in the home, undisturbed (on its shelf, stoop or within its case) all is well, yet once one attempts to remove said skull, supernatural chaos ensues.

 

Should one try to dispose of such a ‘screaming skull’ by any means – via physical destruction, throwing into a river, or even by burial – the skull will always return to its house intact. More often than not, the skull delights in its revenge by not only terrifying the perpetrator, but cursing them with bad luck, a poor harvest or illness.

 

While the UK has several such skulls, below are three of our greatest hitters.

Because if you can’t have a top of the pops style countdown on severed heads, what can you truly enjoy in life?

 

The Bettiscombe Skull

Bettiscombe SkullThe Bettiscombe skull is attributed to an unnamed slave from the West Indies whose unfortunate path led him to Lyme Regis, Dorset. The slave was originally thought to have been brought to Dorset to serve Azariah Pinney, a plantation owner and dealer in the Slave Trade.

As with most apocryphal stories of slaves at this time, it is unclear whether the unnamed slave was a victim of, or perpetrator of, a murder. Nonetheless, the deceased’s wishes were to be buried back in his homeland. These were ignored and this supposed ‘faithful black servant’ was interred at Bettiscombe churchyard, in response to which, his haunting began. Supposedly screams were heard from the churchyard, and bizarre noises emanated from the farmhouse. The disturbances only ceased when the body was disinterred.

In 1872, it was published in Dorset “Notes and Queries” that:

 

The peculiar superstition attaching to it is that if it be brought out of the house the house itself would rock to its foundations, whilst the person by whom such an act of desecration was committed would certainly die within the year.”

 

Many attempts were made to re-bury the body, but with little success. Such attempts were so frequent and ill-managed, that after time, only the skull remained. The skull eventually found its resting place back at the farmhouse, in the nook of a staircase.

Or so the legend goes…

In more recent years, the skull was examined by Professor Gilbert Causey of the Royal College of Surgeons. He deemed the skull as not only female, but pre-historic in origin, most probably a sacrificial victim from an earlier settlement. Yet the legend had laid roots and is well known, and well-minded to this day.

The skull’s – and the Pinney family’s – journey is well documented throughout the years and is well-researched by the Dorset County Museum, whose links I have provided at the bottom of this article.

 

The Tunstead Farm Skull

Tunstead Farm, known locally as ‘Skull Farm’, sits in a quiet hamlet in Derbyshire that dates back to the 13thCentury.dicky2

According to local legend, there are many options as to the owner and ‘haunter’ of the head:

Firstly, a (as ever) unnamed young woman was murdered in the same room as the skull is kept. Secondly, a man named ‘Ned Dixon’, a spurned ancestor of the farm’s owners or thirdly, and most dramatically, a murdered sister.

The most gripping of these potential haunting sources originates with two sisters, both enamoured with the same man. In jealousy, one murdered the other. On her deathbed, the murdered sister proclaimed that her bones would never rest.

As referenced in the blog ‘Ludchurch’ (linked below), the 1895 work ‘Household Tales and other Traditional Remains’ went on to say that:

 

‘Her bones are kept in a cheese vat in the farmhouse which stands in a staircase window. If the bones are removed from the vat trouble comes upon the house, strange noises are heard at night, the cattle die or are seized with illness.’

 

The skull, nicknamed “Dickie” was also said to be a supernatural guardian of the farmhouse and forces knocking noises to herald the approach of strangers. Supposedly, Dickie’s rappings have also heralded deaths in the family and further issues with livestock.

 

As with most other haunted skulls, all is well unless Dickie is removed, in which case auditory chaos reigns. Superstitions concerning Dickie’s power over the farmland, that in 1870, following issues with a railway company and unsuccessful (on account of Dickie’s intervention) building work, a Lancashire poet wrote:

 

Neaw, Dickie, be quiet wi’ thee,lad,

An ‘let navvies an’ railways a ‘be;

Mon tha shouldn’t do soa, its to bad,

What harm are they doin’ to thee?

Deed folk shouldn’t meddle at o’

But leov o’ these matters to th’wick;

They’ll see they’re done gradely, aw know-

Dos’t’ yer what aw say to thee, Dick?

 

After several instances of theft and frenzied return, Dickie remains at the homestead where she occupies her usual spot by the kitchen window.

 

The Wardley Skull

The Wardley Skull has two potential roots – one fanciful, one probable.

Wardley SkullThe less-likely legend surrounds the skull- that it is the cranium of Roger Downes, a shamed member of the family owning Wardley hall who, after escaping a murder trial, drunkenly attacked a watchman who swiftly beheaded Downes with a swipe of his rapier.

(This would be improbable, nigh impossible – hence the unlikely legend.)

The Wardley Skull follows the tradition of persecuted clergy, reportedly belonging to a Catholic priest, Father Ambrose Barlow who was hung, drawn and quartered in 1641. His severed head was subsequently put on display at Lancaster Castle, later being stolen by a Catholic sympathiser and secreted within the walls of Wardley Hall.

The skull lay undiscovered until the 18thCentury where the legends surrounding its power begun to take hold.

It is said that, believing it to be an animal skull, a servant of Matthew Moreton (the then owner

 

of Wardley) hurled the skull into the Hall’s moat. That night, a particularly strong storm broke out. Both the skull and the Hall’s owner were displeased with this turn of events, with the owner demanding the draining of the moat and the safe return of the skull.

Although not open to the public, the Wardley skull remains protected in a niche beside the main staircase, preserved behind glass.

 

While Morris Dancing, Cheese-Rolling and the burning of treacherous effigies atop bonfires have maintained their twee popularity over the years, I put my vote in for the return of a greater British tradition. A good, haunted skull. If anyone needs me, I’ll be disinterring some clergy…

 

Sources/Further Reading:

https://dorsetcountymuseum.wordpress.com/tag/pinney-family/

https://ludchurchmyblog.wordpress.com/places-of-interest-in-cheshire/the-cursed-skull-of-tunstead-farm/

https://www.paranormaldatabase.com/reports/skulls.php?pageNum_paradata=1&totalRows_paradata=28

http://www.real-british-ghosts.com/screaming-skull.html

http://www.landcas.org.uk/wardleyhall.html

https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/screaming-skulls-folklore-fact-and-fiction/

Haunted England – Christina Hole (1940)

The Guinness Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Rosemary Ellen Guiley (1992)

 

 

Gravedigging 101

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This week on ‘Burials and Beyond’, how to dispose of a body.

As much as I’d delight in upholding such a click-bait-y introduction, clarification is – sadly – imminent. Unless you’re inclined to murder and subsequent concealment, any deceased individual will pass through a chain of death professionals before they meet their final resting place. In this journey from death to internment and decay, we can be inclined to consider only hospital staff and funeral directors as sole ‘handlers’. However, they are integral pieces in the wider death jigsaw puzzle. I’d like to give a quick overview of a much-overlooked piece in the death and burial chain, that of the gravedigger.

As a Brit, I live in a country of ever-increasing cremation. In 1960, cremation to burial rates were 34.70%, whereas in 2015, they had risen dramatically to 75.44%.  Understandably, there are cultural and religious concerns to take into account in any burial practise, but overall, cremation is firmly the preferred method of ‘burial’ for citizens of the United Kingdom.

For those of us who choose to have our deceased buried, whether for reasons of religion or tradition, our thoughts often only extend as far as the funeral director, and not beyond. Subsequently, many consider the journey of our dead less and less. We buy a package, perhaps view the body, attend the service and return home. However, should you choose to have your deceased buried, gravediggers are an integral piece of the journey we frequently overlook. To help with my post, Dan, a very patient former gravedigger, agreed to answer my barrage of questions.

We know gravediggers exist, but our mental images of the profession are often warped by Victorian grotesques, or folk-take depictions of hunched sextons, busying themselves in remote churchyards. As delightfully gothic as these images may be, they are far from the contemporary truth. Should you live in a city, you can be sure there is a team of full-time, fully trained gravediggers waiting to bury your dead.

Digging a grave is far more complex than ‘dig a hole, chuck Nanna in, fill it up, pub, golden.’ Funeral Directors are frequently seen as the main ‘body burier’, but in reality, they are far more of a middle-man, providing guidance and comfort. So, how does a gravedigger go about burying your corpse?

Firstly, there will be an allocated plot within the cemetery – this may be a pre-purchased plot in prime position (with a prime price tag), or a regular plot assigned by the cemetery. Once the gravedigger has seen the plot, they’ll be able to estimate the time needed to dig the hole. Typically, there is nothing simple or constant about digging a hole. The gravedigger will know the ground; soft clay will take less time than very rocky earth etc. Believe it or not, some graves may take half a day to dig by hand, whereas another plot 200 metres away may take three day’s solid work with a mechanical digger and hydraulic hammer.

So, with the plot known, you…still can’t begin digging. Before shovel meets earth, the gravedigger needs to know the exact size and shape of the coffin (coffins taking precedence over caskets in the UK) as such a wide variety of styles require a wide variety of holes. If the details passed on from the funeral director are incorrect or dramatically change, the gravedigger has no choice but to quickly take a shovel to the graveside and re-size the hole in front of the grieving funeral party themselves. As a very tolerant gravedigger recounted ‘a beetroot complexion and trying not to fall into a grave while trying to jam in a coffin is not a good look.’

Having painfully foregone all temptations to make poor jokes as to the importance of size, now we must consider the equal importance of depth. If a grave is for one person, the gravedigger will typically dig to a depth of 4 ft. Most commonly, graves are dug for two internments, which will be around 6 to 6.5 ft deep. As my patient gravedigger recalls ‘there is nothing more annoying than digging out a rock hard grave for two people, only to be told on the day it was only for one.’

Similarly, multiple internments or family plots have their perils ‘If you get a grave for four people, you’ve got to get your miners hat on and take the caged canary with you! Being twelve foot down in a narrow grave is really very scary, and a ladder is a must!’ 

In terms of practicality, before the coffin enters the ground the amount of earth leaving and returning to the hole must be considered – if none was removed from the pile of earth, there will be a large mound left once the grave is filled in. If too much is taken, you’ve got a trough-shaped problem on your hands.

While digging, all graves are supported by wooden boards to try to prevent the earth falling in on the gravedigger themselves, but sometimes a collapse is imminent (see picture). Normally, such a collapse is little more than an irritant as the gravedigger may be free from harm, but the entire collapse must be re-structured and made safe before digging can continue.

Another perpetual pain is that of water intrusion. If a grave reaches a natural spring and fills with water, or if there is a particularly heavy downpour, the grave can fill with water… fast. So, how to solve such a problem with the funeral party gnashing at your heels.

Gravedigger Dan says ‘…you keep a pump running right up until the hearse pulls up, chuck a bag of dry leaves or straw down in the grave and whisper in the director’s ear “hurry the fuck up!”…’.

He continues, ‘I have been standing there and watched a coffin seem to be rising from the grave. Again, you can’t help but turn beetroot-faced when people are looking at you in horror…’

Similarly, gravediggers are no strangers to workplace mishaps. The webs (the straps used to lower a coffin) may snap, should they be in poor condition (a rare, but embarrassing hazard), and the coffin may tumble into the hole before the funeral party. Should the webs snap from a great height, there’s a good chance the lid will pop off too, unveiling Nanna’s wizened face to the world. Further to this, it is a rare, but not unseen site to see one of the funeral party fall in to the grave and break a bone or two of their own.

Depending on cultural and personal demonstrations of grief, wilful flinging of oneself into the grave is slightly more common than such an unintended tumble.

Through talking to Dan, he particularly emphasised that the greatest hindrance in the smooth burial of the deceased was the carelessness of other visitors to the cemetery. He has seen impatient people beeping their car horns at hearses as they both slowly enter the cemetery gates and others loudly cleaning and tending graves beside an ongoing service. He has seen cars driven into headstones and has had a careers-worth of abuse thrown his way from grieving families.

So, the coffin is in, the funeral party has gone, time to bury the dead. This is done by hand and is usually straight forwards… providing no rubble is being used, which may smash through the coffin when thrown in. Then back-filling picks up at double-speed to hide the exposed deceased!

Once the grave is filled in, with a little mound on top to accommodate the earth sinking (when everything settles, this should give the grave a level ground), the gravediggers then arrange the flowers that had been put to one side, remove any sign of their presence and leave at last.

Finally, cultural differences. Most cemeteries will be aware of different burial and funeral traditions and will subsequently accommodate or have measures in place for such rituals. Some cultures like to back-fill the grave themselves (which is a nice little break for the gravediggers!), others enjoy a graveside picnic and others may require water beside the grave so they can wash their own feet and the deceased themselves.

Gravediggers may be a rather ‘unseen’ profession, but their importance cannot be over-stated. It also cannot be over-stated how much crap they must withstand from us, the grieving public, So, next time you’re in need of their services, why not tip them? Or simply say a few words of thanks. Chances are, we’ll all need their services eventually!

 

 

Further Reading:

http://www.cremation.org.uk/constitution-and-annual-reports

 

 

 

 

 

 

Warstone Lane – Birmingham’s Hidden Catacombs

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When searching for cemeteries and memorials, ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Birmingham city centre’ aren’t the most obvious bedfellows. Take the time to stroll into the jewellery quarter and you’ll find a little death-y treat, slap bang in the middle of all your diamond shopping needs.

Indeed, alongside Lenny Henry, Industrialisation and Black Sabbath, Birmingham can boast of bearing catacombs. Small, but beautifully formed. Don’t get your hopes up by expecting some labyrinthine, beautifully preserved affair, complete with tour guides and postcards at the gift shop. Birmingham’s catacombs are small, blocked up, shielded from view and not for those of clumsy disposition. Or those of us with easily-triggered vertigo! Nonetheless, they’re well worth a visit if you find yourself in the black country.

Warstone Lane Cemetery (also known as Brookfields, C of E or Mint Cemetery) was established in 1848 by a private company to cope with the overcrowding of cemeteries that was commonplace throughout much of the 18th and early 19th centuries.  It was initially intended as a burial ground for Anglicans, but, as with most city burial grounds, this was not strictly enforced as time progressed. The last internments were made in 1982, meaning that little is done to the cemetery in terms of upkeep and preservation; that is not to say the place is going to rack and ruin, but it is evident how few graves are regularly visited by relatives. However, during our brief walk around the grounds, we saw a number of flat topped tombs used as informal dining tables for workers on their lunchbreak. It was nice to see engagement and an element of non-destructive activity within the cemetery ; the workers’ setups seemed rather ingenious and not at all disrespectful. Warstone Cemetery, clearly has changing usages and is ingrained into the fabric of the surrounding area.

A short internet search will furnish you with a list of notable burials, such as – Harry Gem (a 19th century sportsman with excellent sideburns), Clement Ingelby (Shakespearian Scholar – sideburn status, unknown) and John Postgate (Surgeon and food safety campaigner. Fluffy sideburns.)  In order to stay true to my ‘casual’ writing style, (and as my trip was unplanned), I sought out none of these. You’re welcome.

However, it takes little more than a short wander around the cemetery to find a number of interesting tombs, memorials and carvings that would keep the casual visitor interested for hours.

Personal favourites of mine included:-

 

 

  • The Tomb of William Hipkins, his wife Lavinia and sister Bertha. William himself was lost in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the stone reading ‘the sea shall give up its dead.’

Hipkins had been a successful engineer and the main initiator of the formation of the University of Birmingham’s Business School.

 

  • The traditional headstone of Mary Ann Broore (technically a lawn grave, but before such sections existed). While I know little of her life, her headstone contains a beautiful array of carved flowers, wheat, ferns and ivy.

 

  • The variety of veiled urns and headstones. There are a number of heavily veiled headstones (traditionally, a Victorian shorthand for displaying grief), predominantly on family plots containing heart-breaking numbers of young children. While deeply sad, they are towering, beautiful monuments to a very personal tragedy experienced by so many.

 

The upper section of the cemetery is filled with simplistic chest tombs, hence the propensity for passing workers to utilise their makeshift picnic spots. Several of the larger examples are family vaults, most with short histories recorded on the side.

In-between pockets of tombs and vaults, there are a number of beautifully sculpted urns, obelisks and a snaking line of ledgers above the catacomb recess, commemorating civilians who died during the war. There are broken columns galore and a lot of granite. So mind your step if its wet when you visit!

While headstones and tombs are the bread and butter of a taphophile’s day out, I found some of the most interesting features in Warstone Cemetery to be of relatively ‘natural’ formation. To reiterate; Warstone, although no longer a working cemetery, is not abandoned, but has suffered from neglect over the years. The first feature to capture my interest resembled rows and rows of uneven, fresh graves.

As I entered the cemetery, I was met with rows of tilted headstones, each looming over a deep trough of dead leaves. These brown recesses gave the contradictory appearance of being freshly dug, but, due to the weathered headstones, simultaneously old and abandoned. These jaunty rows appeared to be more noticeable in the upper, and subsequently older part of the cemetery. These graves that have not been backfilled since the initial coffin collapse (often hundreds of years prior) – leading to an interesting topography of deep ditches, particularly on the side of the cemetery closest to the station.

Naturally, the key attraction at Warstone Cemetery is its tiered catacombs. These were initially constructed as a means of absorbing the site’s existing sandpit into the environs. (Warstone and Key Hill Cemetery were built on hillsides that had been quarried for sand, later used in the metal casting process.)

While this added a few extra family vaults – creating a three-storey cemetery of sorts – it cannot be deemed to be a space-saving construction. However, is has been recorded that the unpleasant vapours exuding from said catacombs resulted in the instigation of the Birmingham Cemeteries Act, meaning that all coffins that were not directly interred should be sealed with pitch or lead.

Sadly, the catacombs themselves are no longer directly accessible to the public; you can stroll along the paths, read the inscriptions, but the tombs themselves are now fully sealed.  I am to understand they’d previously been open to the public, but have found no photographic or first hand evidence of this. Nonetheless, many of the entrances are now an attractive shade of concrete.

Upon approaching the catacombs, there is a circular plot, surrounding a central grouping of beech and pine trees. The burials within it are all pleasant enough, as are the ones flanking either side of the entrance and beside the ominously buttressed wall. There are easily accessible stairs to the side of the catacombs, so access is easy enough, HOWEVER, if you plan on visiting, there are no safety precautions once the stairs have been ascended. The structure is as it always was, which is utterly refreshing in today’s cemetery environments where headstones are regularly laid flat at the slightest sniff of a slant.  The catacombs are shown as they were intended to be; not to overstate it, but as a certain amphitheatre of death. Conversely, a stone surface, 9 feet up high, thick with moss, isn’t health and safety’s best friend. There is no railing on the top level, meaning that one wrong step close to the edge could result in your own internment if you’re not careful. So, enjoy the view, keep your eyes open and don’t be an idiot.

 

At the top of the catacombs sits the tomb of businessman John Baskervillle. While his name lends itself to the famous typeface, the story of his death, or rather the treatment of his corpse, is far more interesting. I’ll try to provide a short summary, however I urge you to follow the further reading links at the bottom of the post. When John Baskerville died in 1775, he was a very successful and wealthy man, but also a confirmed atheist. In his will, he provided strict instructions as to the treatment of his body. Baskerville was not only buried upright, but in an air-tight lead-lined coffin. Initially, these wishes were carried out and old Baskerville was interred in a small mausoleum in the grounds of his house Easy Hill, where he rested for many years. However, in 1821, workmen digging for gravel disinterred Baskerville’s coffin, where is subsequently laid unclaimed by relatives. As Baskerville was unwanted and an outspoken atheist, no cemetery would inter him and his decayed body created somewhat of a quandary. For several years, it rested in the warehouse of Thomas Gibson, the man whose business stood in the place of the old Baskerville House. Being an entrepreneurial sort, Gibson would occasionally open Baskerville’s coffin to curious visitors at the cost of 6d a peek. Oweing to Baskervilles method of burial, he was remarkably well preserved. A visitor, Thomas Underwood, sketched Baskerville’s body in August 1829 and recorded that –

his body was, after forty-six years underground, in a singular state of preservation. It was wrapped in a white linen shroud with a branch of laurel, faded but firm in texture. The skin on the face was dry but perfect. The eyes were gone, but eye brows, the eye lashes, lips and teeth remained. The skin on the abdomen and body generally was in the same state with the face. An unpleasant smell strongly resembling decayed cheese arose from the body, and rendered it necessary to close the coffin quickly.”

Visitors notwithstanding, being stored in a warehouse didn’t suit the fast-putrifying businessman and Baskerville soon changed hands. Plumber John Marston soon found himself the new guardian of Baskerville and was decidedly less conscientious about opening the coffin. Soon, visitors to his corpse (oh yes, there were still visitors) were overcome by the smell of putrefaction and Baskerville had to go. At this stage, Baskerville’s state was less than pretty, but still, no-one would bury his remains. After a series of underhand machinations on the part of Marston, Baskerville was buried in the catacombs beneath Christ Church. However, Baskerville was denied his rest once more when Christ Church was demolished in 1899 and he – along with 600 other internees – was finally laid to rest at Warstone. His one wish of rejecting burial on consecrated ground was not to be. Today his manhandled remains have the best view of the cemetery, which, although pleasant. No doubt would have provided no small comfort.

As I left Warstone via the gatehouse, I believed that no memorial could top the unexpected wonder of the catacombs. However, as I made my way towards the gates, I found myself drawn to a stunningly unique memorial to the Sutcliffe family – a literal family tree.

The monument is a perfect example of the late 19th century naturalism movement by taking the form of a tree stump. The stone trunk stands beautifully stark against the ‘standard’ headstones around it and is the most unusual ‘small’ memorial within the entirety of Warstone. The Sutcliffe tree lists the names of the deceased at irregular intervals, and at jaunty angles, as though they had been carved by young lovers. Sutcliffe’s work is not just a feat of cemetery masonry, but is a beautifully considered piece of sentimental art. Erected in 1888, it was designed and erected by LW Sutcliffe and seemed to  – initially – be conventional in its listing of deceased ‘kindred’.  However, the latest addition is the most emotionally charged, being a eulogy for his eldest son, Isherwood Edmonds Sutcliffe who had died as a result of wounds received in France in 1916.

While Warstone has its fair share of supposed hauntings (an obligatory ‘grey lady’ and a lost WW1 soldier), its appeal lies firmly in the stories left by the living and the remarkable ways by which nature shuffles its way through established structures.

 

 

Sites used in Research/Further Reading:

 

http://www.birminghamconservationtrust.org/2012/10/19/haunted-heritage-warstone-lane-cemetery/

 

https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/william-edward-hipkins.html

 

https://www.birminghampost.co.uk/business/business-opinion/city-securing-sweet-melancholy-death-9810015

 

https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2425682/memorial-search?page=1#sr-111232711

 

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001545

 

http://houndofhecate.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/john-baskervilles-peripatetic-corpse.html

(Sketch image courtesy of the above)