In 1843, the Scottish cemetery designer, John Claudius Loudon, explained that the purpose of a burial ground was to dispose of the dead ‘in such a manner as that their decomposition, and return to the earth from which they sprung, shall not prove injurious to the living.’
A decade earlier, London cemeteries had reached critical mass. Death rates were rising within the city due to overcrowding and outbreaks of cholera, tuberculosis, diphtheria, smallpox and typhus.
Burial grounds were bursting at the seams, causing one Reverend John Blackburn to remark:
I am sure the moral sensibilities of many delicate minds must sicken to witness the heaped soil, saturated and blackened with human remains and fragments of the dead…
The rate at which burials were growing was mind-boggling. According to one report, many cemeteries around London were burying as many as 11,000 people per acre.
To put this in perspective, most cemeteries today accommodate 750-1,000 burials per acre—a tiny fraction of what was acceptable in the past.
Bodies were literally crammed on top of one another. Most graveyards contained open pits with rows and rows of coffins exposed to sight and smell.
Pit burial was so common in London that two men asphyxiated on the methane and other gases emanating from decomposing bodies after falling twenty feet to the bottom of one such pit in the early 19th century.
For those living nearby, the smell was unbearable, especially during the summer months. The houses on Clement’s Lane in the East End of London backed into the local churchyard, and ‘ran with stinking slime.’
The stench was so overpowering, that occupants kept their windows shut all year long. Even the children attending Sunday school could not escape these unpleasantries. They learned their lessons as insects buzzed around them, no doubt originating from inside the church’s crypt which was crammed with 12,000 decomposing bodies.
Even after the chapel was closed in 1844, it continued to be used, this time for ‘Dances on the Dead’ (see illustration, below) until the bodies were eventually moved to West Norwood Cemetery a few years later.