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  • Writer's picturePaul Dobraszczyk

Visiting London’s dead

Visitors in the Kensal Green catacombs

Catacombs are underground structures, built of brick or stone in the form of a cellar, which house coffins in recesses in galleries. Altogether, ten cemeteries in nineteenth-century London were constructed with catacombs: the first at Kensal Green in 1832 with others following at Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton and Nunhead in 1840; and Tower Hamlets, City of London, Saint Mary’s and New Southgate in the 1840s and 50s. They give an important indication of London attitudes not just toward underground space and death but also toward the changing cityscape as a whole.

The oldest precedent for the catacombs of London were those built in Rome, most famously by the early Christians in the second and third centuries. However, the most recent influential precedents were those in Paris, which were established in 1786 when, in response to the overcrowding of the city’s cemeteries, the bones of the dead in the Cemetery of the Innocents were moved to what were formerly underground quarries under the Left Bank. Bones were moved throughout the early part of the nineteenth century and it is estimated that around 3 million bodies are now interred in the catacombs. What was unusual about the catacombs was that they made no distinction of social status – the bones  are arranged solely according to the cemetery from which they came. This led many to comment on the egalitarian nature of the space: the skull of an aristocrat might lie next to that of a pauper or criminal.

Democracy in the Paris catacombs

Another unusual aspect of this space was that it was open to the public. In the nineteenth century, public visits were offered twice a month to persons obtaining authorisation from the police. Even today, where visits are possible all year round, the sheer number of bones and their abstract configurations still provoke strong reactions. Visitors see only a fraction of the network of catacombs and they are a magnet for urban explorers and other groups who attempt to penetrate their secret spaces with subversive fervour.

Yet, from the start, the Paris catacombs were associated with revolution. They were constructed at the time of the first revolution in 1789 and remained indelibly tied up with the social upheavals in Paris that occurred sporadically throughout the nineteenth century. Their concealed nature and unknown extent led to a mixing of legends and facts: according to the authorities these underground spaces were used by conspirators to both hide and organize themselves. Revolutionaries even drew on the Christian precedent of the Roman catacombs: they viewed themselves as a persecuted minority, hiding in the depths of the earth, until their hour of triumph or martyrdom came.

The main corridor and catafalque in the Kensal Green catacombs

In contrast with the labyrinthine layout of their Parisian counterparts, London’s catacombs were built on grids.The galleries were constructed in arched brick, the standard architectural form of Victorian London. At Kensal Green these arches are divided into arched insets, with deep cuts at their ends to let in light from above. Within the individual arches, various arrangements occur, the most frequent being a division into separate loculi, one for each coffin, inserted lengthwise to conserve space. Some of the arches are reserved for a single family, or some are empty – never having been used.

A key feature of the London catacombs was a hydraulic lift, or catafalque, by which the coffin would be mechanically lowered at the right moment from the chapel to the catacombs below. The mechanism would be concealed by the coffin drapery giving the illusion of a miraculous descent into the underworld. This was a piece of pure theatre and marked a combination of up-to-date technology with ancient myth. The catacomb gave the appearance of automation within an inorganic man-make environment of brick, lead and iron, with the lead-lined coffins giving the impression of an incorruptible body, even if this far from the reality – today, most of the coffins are badly decayed, infested with woodworm and mouldering in the damp. Yet, today, the Kensal Green catacombs are only three-quarter’s full and you can still buy space to inter yourself or your entire family.

The London catacombs, like those in Paris, were also visited by the public. Family members and curiosity seekers regularly descended into their spaces to revisit the dead – a practice not possible with traditional methods of burial. This subterranean visit transported visitors to another world, albeit one strictly controlled by modern technology. Today, most of London’s catacombs have been sealed off; only Kensal Green and Highgate offer regular opportunities to curiosity seekers who still want to visit London’s dead.

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