Victorian Valhallas: Cemetery Picnics

The Victorians had a very peculiar tradition of picnicking in cemeteries. After the death of Queen Victoria’s hubby in 1861, the entire country donned their mourning attire. For forty years. (To be fair, Victoria only asked her court for three years of goth gear. Moved by her dedication to Prince Albert, they persisted in continuing the tradition until the queen’s death, at which point the custom was put to rest, and so began the Edwardian period in Britain.)

I’d like to say the tendency to accessorize all in black, cover the household mirrors with black crepe, commemorate their loved ones with trinkets of their hair wrapped delicately in lockets, or photographing their remains in very lifelike poses with the remaining members of the family surrounding the body is the subject of this post — in due time, I hope to touch on at least some of this stuff — but today I want you and I to indulge in a time-honoured tradition that I’ve gladly resurrected in my own life:

Picnicking in cemeteries.

So grab a sandwich, and let’s have a little chat about what it was like to die in Victorian London.

A Little Bit of Backstory

While doing research for the book I’ve been working on, I came across a couple of interesting tidbits: London was a foggy, congested, dirty city in the 1800’s. Post-and-during the industrial revolution, thick fogs regularly rolled through due to the mixture of soot and sulfur dioxide from residential chimneys and factories mixing with mist rolling off the Thames. It created the perfect cover for the Jack the Ripper murders, and of course, the climate coupled with a lack of proper sanitation bred pestilence: scarlet fever, cholera, typhus, measles, influenza, diphtheria — you name it, you could die from it.

Whitechapel London

One in three infants didn’t make it to their first birthday. In a population of 2.3 billion where folks were often buried in churchyards, it’s not hard to imagine that burial grounds got overcrowded pretty quick. Add to that the increasing number of bodies being snatched from their resting places, people occasionally being buried alive (whoops!), and bodies exposed and rotting because they weren’t buried deep enough (two feet was the minimum — a big difference from today, where it ranges anywhere from six to twelve, and sometimes more.) Or worse — they were exhumed too quickly to make room for the fresh dead, and you had the circumstances that you had a case of serious social distress on your hands.

Frankly, cemeteries were thought to be a health hazard; nevermind places that bred nightmares.

The Magnificent Seven

In 1832, British Parliament set up seven private cemeteries that ringed the city that would be:

Beneficial to public morals, to the improvement of manners, but are likewise calculated to extend virtuous and generous feelings… A garden cemetery [modelled after Pere Lachaise in Paris] is the sworn foe to preternatural fear and superstition.

– The Victorian Celebration of Death

This is only ironic to me, because three of the Magnificent Seven are reportedly haunted, and one of them is home to my most favourite vampire legend ever. (EVER. Stay tuned for next week’s post on that.)

Highgate Cemetery, 1841

Being buried in one of the Magnificent Seven’s cemeteries was a costly affair that demonstrated social status as much as a willingness to commemorate their loved ones in the most ostentatious way possible. As the garden cemeteries appealed to the middle class, attention was paid to the flora, fauna, and even the monuments were (and still are) unprecedented in their elaborateness and elegance. As an art history nerd, 19th century sculpture sends me all a-twitter with excitement; add some verdurous foliage — ivy, creeper, lush hornbeam and yew, cypress, ferns, bluebells, holly — and you have your allocated plot for eternity nestled in a garden where butterflies, bees, foxes, even deer wander through. Victorians thought this treatment “took away the gloom of the grave,” and given the precedent, the Magnificent Seven became veritable paradises on earth.

Victorian Valhallas: Cemetery Picnics

With mourning tradition at its height as an involved and expensive demonstration of a beloved’s devotion to their departed, it seemed fitting that the pomp of funereally practices culminated in a willingness to spend time in these places, close to the dead, where they slumbered in a place of peace and beauty, separate from the hustle and filth of London town. Designed like public parks, with their Gothic revival mausoleums and Egyptian-inspired colonnades, the cemeteries became a place to spend a Sunday afternoon where families might spread a blanket in a patch of shade, and socialize with others who’d come to visit with their loved ones at rest.

Highgate Cemetery, 1841

Remember, mourning was de rigeur with such a high mortality rate. While this might seem odd by today’s standards, Victorians romanticized death, being so close to it. While we are removed from the process, given the majority of our exposure to death happens in hospitals, it was commonplace in Victorian England to surround a dying loved one on a deathbed watch in their home, in their bed, hoping to hear their profound final words in the hope to shed some light on the meaning of life before they passed. Mourning and its rituals provided a means of coping with the passage.

Now, I’m no historian by any means, and hell — I don’t even live in the UK. But believe me when I say that on a summer’s day, the best place in the city to read a book is under the shade of weeping willow at the cemetery on the hill with some goat cheese and crusty bread sitting in my icepack, and maybe a bottle of Pinot Gris if I’m feeling super indulgent.

There’s one thing I can assure you, if you’re observing the tradition of the cemetery picnic: the neighbours definitely don’t complain about the company.

This article was adapted from the original posted by Kira Butler at The Midnight Society on March 28, 2014.

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