The Victorian Cemetery as an Olfactory Refuge

Featured image: Highgate Cemetery founded in 1839. Photo via http://notesfromcamelidcountry.net/2013/07/21/highgate-cemetery-a-victorian-valhalla/.

Spring will soon be upon us – the season of re-birth. Winter melts away, and beneath the ice, the grass shines emerald, and begins to grow. The tulips begin to bloom; the frost gives way to cool sunlight. The cemetery becomes green. It smells damp, cleansed from the snow that once clung to its ground. It is quiet, except for the birds, and a few pairs of feet, for visits to the cemetery, now, are special and rare, quite few and far between.

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“Cemetery Gates” candle by Burke & Hare Co perfectly captures the scent of a crisp spring stroll over the newly thawed grounds of the spring cemetery.

This was not always the case.

In the nineteenth century, Victorian families spent their leisure in the cemetery. They even lunched with the dead, who dwelled soundlessly beneath them. And though, of course, their culture was inclined to mourn – it was how they continued to endure in the face of high mortality rates, especially for their children – the dead bodies were perhaps not the most enticing characteristic about the cemetery in the nineteenth century.

Widow Walking Through a Cemetery
A Widow Walking Through a Cemetery – to visit her husband, and also, to escape the city. Via The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1901.

The Victorian cemetery was a place of beautiful gardens and greenery, on the outskirts of the city, where fresh air was plentiful. It served as an escape from poorly ventilated houses and cities, where human excrement was known to leak into basements. In 1858, the problem of human waste in the River Thames gained infamy in The Great Stink, during which the hot July weather made the smells exuding from the river unbearable. Not even Parliament was spared, and had to resort to “dousing the curtains of Parliament in a mixture of chloride and lime” in order to carry on with business.

Due to the overwhelming and almost inescapable presence of fetid fumes in Victorian life, odor became an important indicator of health. The prevailing theory of the day was that diseases were caused by effluvia – or rotten smells – that carried with them noxious particles that could infect one and cause illness or death. One major source of effluvia, it was believed, was rotting bodies.

Before the cemetery came into existence, one could only be buried in a churchyard, as I mentioned in a previous post. There was a real problem of overcrowding and bodies being buried upon multiple bodies, but the Church (of England) was not taking any real action to remedy the situation. Cremation for Christians was also, for the most part, unpopular. Because of this, churchyards – and even churches themselves, if bodies were buried under their floors – could often stink, to the point that some religious services became unbearable to endure through. None of the effluvia from the overcrowded churchyards was found in the new cemetery, however; here the acreage, grave plots, and enjoyments of leisure seemed limitless. It was a true botanical refuge.

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