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Churches Conservation Trust - Lunchtime Lectures #16 Victorians & death

"A Cemetery can and should, by the exercise of art, be made as beautiful as possible"

H. E. Milner, The art and practice of landscape gardening

Whoever said churches were dull and boring clearly hasn't been following our weekly lecture series. Our free lectures take place live every Thursday online, but you can catch up on every single one right here. Our lectures explore everything from art, architecture, history, politics to even some pretty weird and wonderful topics too!

Another video in our highlights from the CCT Lunchtime Lecture series.

This weeks video: Death Theory & Victorian Cemeteries a MA Death, Religion & Culture Taster Lecture

Welcome to this taster lecture with Dr Christina Welch, Reader in Religion, Theology and Philosophy at The University of Winchester, who is course director for the MA in Death, Religion and Culture.

Check out the full range of video lectures Here and Here

Stay tuned for more videos from the CCT in coming weeks.


Victorians & death

During the Victorian era, which lasted from 1837 to 1901 in the United Kingdom, death was a significant and ever-present part of daily life. Victorians had specific beliefs and rituals surrounding death and dying, which reflected their cultural, social, and religious norms.

One of the primary beliefs during this time was that death was an inevitable part of life, and it was crucial to be prepared for it. Many Victorians believed in the concept of a "good death," which meant dying at home, surrounded by loved ones and being at peace with God. The idea was to die with dignity, without any fear or pain.

Victorians also believed in mourning as a process of honouring and remembering the dead. Mourning was a way to show respect for the deceased and to express grief openly. The mourning period typically lasted for up to two years, and during this time, mourners would wear black clothing, veil their faces, and avoid social events.

Victorian mourning rituals also included the practice of sending mourning cards or black-bordered stationery to announce the death of a loved one. These cards often contained sentimental verses and illustrations, and they were meant to be kept as keepsakes.

Additionally, Victorians believed in the afterlife and the importance of proper burial. They believed that the deceased would be judged based on their earthly deeds and that their souls would either ascend to heaven or descend to hell. As such, funerals were solemn and formal affairs, and families went to great lengths to ensure that their loved ones were buried with dignity.

Overall, Victorian attitudes towards death and dying were deeply rooted in religious and cultural traditions, emphasizing the importance of respect, dignity, and mourning as a means of honouring and remembering the dead.

Victorian Graveyards and Death

Victorian graveyards were typically located in the outskirts of cities and towns and were designed to accommodate the growing population of the time.

During the Victorian era, there was a renewed interest in death and mourning, which was reflected in the design and decoration of graveyards.

Victorian graveyards were often landscaped with trees, flowers, and other vegetation, creating an aesthetically pleasing and tranquil environment. The graves themselves were often marked with elaborate headstones and monuments made of stone, marble, or bronze. These monuments often included intricate carvings, inscriptions, and symbols that reflected the deceased's social status, religion, and personal interests.

One unique feature of Victorian graveyards was the use of mortsafes, which were iron cages or bars that were placed over newly buried coffins to prevent body snatching.

In the early 19th century, it was not uncommon for medical schools to purchase cadavers from grave robbers for research purposes. The use of mortsafes ensured that the bodies of the deceased were not stolen for such purposes.

Victorian graveyards were also designed to be communal spaces, where families could visit and spend time in the company of their deceased loved ones. Some graveyards even included chapels or other spaces for mourning and contemplation.

Today, many Victorian graveyards have become historic landmarks and tourist attractions, valued for their beautiful architecture and as a reflection of the social and cultural values of the time.

"Victorian cemeteries are monuments to the art of death. They are outdoor museums that tell stories of human life and culture in their most poignant forms."

Jacqueline T. Lynch

The "Magnificent Seven"

The "Magnificent Seven" is a term used to describe a group of seven large private cemeteries that were built in Victorian times in the outskirts of London to accommodate the increasing population of the city. The cemeteries were designed as grand, landscaped spaces where the wealthy and middle-class Victorians could bury their dead in elaborate tombs and mausoleums.

The seven cemeteries are:

Kensal Green Cemetery, established in 1832

West Norwood Cemetery, established in 1837

Highgate Cemetery, established in 1839

Abney Park Cemetery, established in 1840

Nunhead Cemetery, established in 1840

Brompton Cemetery, established in 1840

Tower Hamlets Cemetery, established in 1841

Map showing the cemeteries locations

The cemeteries are notable for their impressive architecture, elaborate funerary monuments, and the famous individuals who are buried there, including politicians, artists, writers, and scientists. Some of the most famous individuals buried in the cemeteries include Karl Marx, Charles Babbage, George Eliot, and William Makepeace Thackeray.

Today, the "Magnificent Seven" cemeteries are popular tourist attractions and are known for their historic and cultural significance, as well as their beautiful architecture and landscaping.

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