Since this deals with two of my favorite subjects (London and cemeteries) this is going to go on (and on and on) a bit. It falls into three parts
1) what I think about the book and its subject (with some random family stories of mine tossed in),
2) quotes to give you an idea of the sorts of history and writing (example: a really random verse of Three Little Kittens about their death!!!), and
3) links to other books, essays, and art that I found online thanks to the book making me interested enough to google. And then part
4) (because of course I added another section since I tried to limit myself to just three) the table of contents because for some reason I feel like being particularly through.
Necropolis is the story of burial in London from the time prior to the Roman occupation to modern era, and that long span of history is one of the reasons I love this sort of book, and the city itself. If you live in America you come to realize, sooner or later, that you live in a very young country, and that the history of our cities isn't anything like those in Europe. The very concept of excavating in central London and being able to pass through all those centuries as you dig further down has never ceased to amaze me.
About the whole topic of death in this book - it's handled with historical anecdotes about typical burials and related customs, and deals with events that caused mass fatalities and the problems relating to that, as well as references to modern findings via archeological digs. It's not at all what I'd call gory (but then I've read a book on the process of decomposition where it discussed at what stage the eyeballs would liquify - and that's how I now set my scale of More Than I Need To Know/Squeamish Alert. Because, yeek, I had never thought of that til now, thanks Vampires, Burial and Death.)
[Look out, sudden off tangent! But then this is one of those "I was thinking about this lately and the book reminded me" moments. And then I remembered " oh right, not everyone knows this stuff, I should probably describe the viewing bit."]
While the Victorians did get wildly carried away with the trappings of death - to the point that you could be forced to go into debt to follow certain expensive customs deemed Proper Burial/Mourning - I do think today we shy away from death a bit too much. When I say that I'm thinking of my own family traditions. My relatives still go for the Southern (United States) "viewing the body" in a funeral home - somewhat like the wake**, with the dead person in an open coffin, people come to see him/her one last time, and the family hangs around to talk with them and share memories. (No, you don't have to touch or kiss the body. I'm sure some people still do, but everyone has their own limits of comfort. I myself don't do either.) Some people I've told this to have recoiled - which, if you consider how many vampires and zombies run about in popular media now (and everyone's quite ok with that mental concept), it seems odd that sitting around with an actual corpse of someone you knew before the burial would cause people to freak out. (Note that I'm not pretending that in this day and age "the viewing" is typical.) In some ways it's just as strange that with some deaths people don't have any public observations of grief at all - no ceremony, no tomb, no stone, nothing (which happened in my family circle recently, which is probably why I'm writing this bit). If there was no more meaning to these rituals than just empty show, I could understand why people would skip them. But grief needs an outlet, and one of those is having traditions that cause you to gather together, or at least to share with others your memories of the person. There's a lot that goes on in such traditions that's never just symbolism. And when I've attended those family funerals I realized it was important for grieving friends to be able to pass on stories about my relatives that I'd never known - and that I would never have heard, without that traditional gathering.
Many of us, though moving far away from family plots or just through lack of tradition, never visit a cemetery. I certainly wouldn't force it upon anyone (any more than I'd force a viewing tradition), but I think it seems almost like hiding from death, or attempting to. But then I've had relatives die, and I had one of those "you could have died here" events myself, and that does tend to color your own feelings. It's probably why I've really enjoyed the southwestern Day of the Dead traditions of remembrance that I started annually attending in October/November.
Anyway (going back to the book!), rather than say more about what I think of the book, I'll just give you the usual quotes that made me stop and say "now that's interesting." Which, as usual, probably tells you more about me (and what I want to remember) than the book, but at least gives you a sample of the author's writing.
I wouldn't call this a definitive historical work - but it's got lots of citations and a clear list of sources, which is always a great starting point. Just as important, it's history but also an enjoyable read. Er, if you're into this area of cultural history that is. I'm definitely putting it down as Would Read Again (highest praise from me).
** Footnote time! So there is a family story of a great great - sigh, ok uncle or cousin (I have an awful time keeping straight how I'm related to people past first cousin-dom) - let's say uncle, who had died and the family had him laid out at home (because this was pre-funeral home viewing), and family was gathered at the house. Some of the men were to sit up all night (tradition) with the corpse, and apparently one of the brothers was a well known joker, because this kind of obnoxiousness runs in the family. (The men seem to get a higher dose, for some reason.) Anyway, the brother somehow was able to prop the dead man up in his coffin, and put in the dead man's hand a baked potato with a bite taken out of it. And the body was left that way for the first in the house to walk in and find in the morning. Ha ha ha, the dead man sat up and ate a potato. (I'm betting the family wasn't much amused either.)
I would not be surprised if this story was cribbed from similar folk tales floating around in the region (even though there's the name of a specific family member tied to it). But at the same time, it was also the norm to have births and deaths take place in your home in that era - not in hospitals or funeral homes. (And there's one of the the reasons why they were called funeral homes - it was meant as a substitute.) And when someone died at home, the wake or viewing would take place there too, and family and friends would gather there for it. Either the women of the family would clean and dress the corpse or someone local who regularly helped with such matters would be asked to come and take care of it.
Anyway, pass along if you've heard this "corpse was eating a potato" story. I can always use the info as an excuse to send the family genealogists on searches of old newspapers to try and verify family legends.
[All the rest under the pagebreak. You were warned of the length, all ye who pass onward!]