Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Necropolis: London and Its Dead

by Catharine Arnold - 5 stars

A fascinating look at how London has dealt with its dead through the ages, taking us from the Pagans and Romans, through the Middle Ages and the Victorians, up until modern times, and taking in numerous plagues and epidemics, a few fires and two World Wars, the death of Lady Di and the London bombings, while moving from outside the city, into its heart and then back out again. 

Informative, astonishing, gruesome and revealing, this book nearly managed to outdo my record of how many times I could turn to Nik with a "Listen to this!" - I think he was being bothered at least once a page (although he'd probably say it felt like more. He was trying to watch football, after all).

Whether it be the charnel houses with their decorative skeletal chandeliers, the boisterous medieval graveyards and their town centre on a Saturday night atmosphere (complete with heavy drinking, fighting and regular deaths), the putrescent Victorian burial yards that actually killed the living, the drunken gravediggers, the exploding coffins and the showers of remains, the embalmed wives on display in living rooms...

...or the brides making 'grave clothes' for their potential future children, each page was bursting with jaw-dropping and frequently stomach-turning facts.

Gladstone is quoted within: "Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness, the tender mercies of its people, their loyalty to high ideals, and their regard for the laws of the land."

In that case, Arnold shows us here that we don't have an awful lot to be proud of.

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