Recently there has been much talk about a plan to compost the dead in urban burial towers, the Urban Death Project. You can even support it through a Kickstarter campaign. From an ecological point of view, this has many advantages: it would be cheaper for families; precious land would not be wasted on cemeteries; no embalming would be needed, reducing use of toxic chemicals; cremation’s high energy costs could be avoided. And families would come away at the end with a nice bag of compost.
On the downside, there are still some bugs to be worked out: the heat of composting does not destroy everything–disease-causing prions, for example and the end product may not be safe to mulch your vegetable garden with. From an historian’s point of view, if this plan became the regular method of burial, cemeteries would disappear and with them, much beauty and historical information. The compost is also apparently not guaranteed to be completely free of other peoples’ relatives, which might bother some families. On a personal note, I probably wouldn’t volunteer to be composted; I’m not a joiner.
While the Urban Death Project is a hip, modern, scientific, and green take on corpse disposal, the notion of communal graves where the dead might rot in peace is not new. N.P. Willis, an American author visited some gruesome burial pits in Italy in the 1830s (during a cholera epidemic, I might add.) Then, as now, there was death tourism.
The road, after leaving the campo, runs along the edge of the range of hills enclosing the city; and just below, within a high white wall, lies the public burial-place of Naples. I had read so many harrowing descriptions of this spot, that my curiosity rose as we drove along in sight of it, and, requesting my friends to set me down, I joined an American of my acquaintance, and we started to visit it together.
An old man opened the iron door, and we entered a clean, spacious, and well-paved area, with long rows of iron rings in the heavy slabs of the pavement. Without asking a question, the old man walked across to the further corner, where stood a moveable lever, and, fastening the chain into the fixture, raised the massive stone cover of a pit. He requested us to stand back for a few minutes to give the effluvia time to escape, and then, sheltering our eyes with our hats, we looked in. You have read, of course, that there are three hundred and sixty-five pits in this place, one of which is opened every day for the dead of the city. They are thrown in without shroud or coffin, and the pit is sealed up at night for a year. They are thirty or forty feet deep, and each would contain perhaps two hundred bodies. Lime is thrown upon the daily heap, and by the end of the year the bottom of the pit is covered with dry white bones.
It was some time before we could distinguish any thing in the darkness of the abyss. Fixing my eyes on one spot, however, the outlines of a body became defined gradually, and in a few minutes, sheltering my eyes completely from the sun above, I could see all the horrors of the scene but too distinctly. Eight corpses, all of grown persons, lay in a confused heap together, as they had been thrown in one after another in the course of the day. The last was a powerfully made, grey old man, who had fallen flat on his back, with his right hand lying across and half covering the face of a woman. By his full limbs and chest, and the darker colour of his legs below the knee, he was probably one of the lazzaroni [the poorest of Naples], and had met with a sudden death. His right heel lay on the forehead of a young man, emaciated to the last degree, his chest thrown up as he lay, and his ribs showing like a skeleton covered with a skin. The close black curls of the latter, as his head rested on another body, were in such strong relief that I could have counted them. Off to the right, quite distinct from the heap, lay, in a beautiful attitude, a girl, as well as I could judge, of not more than nineteen or twenty. She had fallen on the pile and rolled or slid away. Her hair was very long and covered her left shoulder and bosom; her arm was across her body; and if her mother had laid her down to sleep, she could not have disposed her limbs more decently. The head had fallen a little way to the right, and the feet, which were small, even for a lady, were pressed one against the other, as if she were about turning on her side. The sexton said that a young man had come with the body, and was very ill for some time after it was thrown in. We asked him if respectable people were brought here. “Yes,” he said, “many. None but the rich would go to the expense of a separate grave for their relations. People were often brought in handsome grave-clothes, but they were always stripped before they were left. The shroud, whenever there was one, was the perquisite of the undertakers.” And thus are flung into this noisome pit, like beasts, the greater part of the inhabitants of this vast city—the young and the old, the vicious and the virtuous together, without the decency even of a rag to keep up the distinctions of life! Can human beings thus be thrown away!—men like ourselves —women, children, like our sisters and brothers! I never was so humiliated in my life as by this horrid spectacle. I did not think a man—a felon even, or a leper—what you will, that is guilty or debased—I did not think anything that had been human could be so recklessly abandoned. Pah! it makes one sick at heart! God grant I may never die at Naples!
While we were recovering from our disgust, the old man lifted the stone from the pit destined to receive the dead of the following day. We looked in. The bottom was strewn with bones, already fleshless and dry. He wished us to see the dead of several previous days, but my stomach was already tried to its utmost. We paid our gratuity, and hurried away. A few steps from the gate, we met a man bearing a coffin on his head. Seeing that we came from the cemetery, he asked us if we wished to look into it. He set it down, and the lid opening with a hinge, we were horror-struck with the sight of seven dead infants! The youngest was at least three months old; the eldest perhaps a year; and they lay heaped together like so many puppies, one or two of them spotted with disease, and all wasted to baby-skeletons. While we were looking at them, six or seven noisy children ran out from a small house at the road-side and surrounded the coffin. One was a fine girl of twelve years of age, and, instead of being at all shocked at the sight, she lifted the whitest of the dead things, and looked at its face very earnestly, loading it with all the tenderest diminutives of the language. The others were busy in pointing to those they thought had been prettiest, and none of them betrayed fear or disgust. In answer to a question of my friend about the marks of disease, the man rudely pulled out one by the foot that lay below the rest, and, holding it up to show the marks upon it, tossed it again carelessly into the coffin. He had brought them from the hospital for infants, and they had died that morning. The coffin was worn with use. He shut down the lid, and, lifting it again upon his head, went on to the cemetery, to empty it like so much offal upon the heap we had seen.
Pencillings by the Way, Nathaniel Parker Willis, London: George Virtue, 1852
Willis, by the way, was a friend of Poe and published his poem “The Raven.” He also defended Poe’s reputation after his death. Willis’s idea of a decent burial would have been the standard Victorian one: the body washed, dressed, and coffined. A wake or watch, where the body was not left alone. A religious ceremony, then hearse and carriages to the cemetery for burial in a grave in the family plot. Eventually a monument with a touching inscription erected above the grave. Subsequent pilgrimages and picnics at the cemetery. Distinctions, shrouds, and virtue all intact.
Didn’t the pits eventually fill up? Were the whitened bones left in the pits at Naples reused in any way? Animal bones were often burnt to make pigments or ground up for fertilizer. Perhaps these bones were moved to an ossuary. Skulls disinterred from Neapolitan churches and kept in the Fontanelle charnel house eventually became the subject of a local cult.
A slightly earlier travel writer tells much the same story:
In humble life, no box is provided,—coffin-shape being unknown in the highest. But all here is done in a plain and palpable way; and the occasions are as numerous, where the human remains, in conveyance through the streets of the Neapolitan or Roman Capital—(and, I presume, generally) —are not protected from absolute exposure by a cloth, or a raised awning, as those where they are: the exposure or non-exposure rests in the body’s being borne forth in dress or in comparative, or, it may be, absolute nakedness. In either case it is scrupulously washed clean, and laid out to seem a wax figure: this office rests not with the relatives or domestics of the family, but constitutes the employment of a body of persons, of whom it is the livelihood, and who follow the corpse in procession, each enveloped in a white robe, that disguises the person,—even the face of the wearer being covered, with glasses in the linen, opposite the eyes, to give the train power to perform their duties in detail. The performance, to poor as well as rich, is obligatory on this fraternity ; and the shew they exhibit gives almost as much consequence to the funerals of the one as the other. In Rome the bodies are consigned—coffinless let it be—to earth: and in the exterior of Naples also, is a general cemetery, of which, in sequence through the year, one of its 365 receptacles is diurnally opened, and all who are brought on the same day, are, in utter nakedness, shot into the one pit—that pit to be re-opened on the same day in the following year. But at Naples it is also the practice to reposit corpses numerously in the Church vaults—each in such a position over a hole, that, as it putrifies and moulders, the remains drop into cellarage below, and make room for another corpse to succeed. Mr.__ was present at the stripping of the corpse of a priest—to the shoes—and the placing him in this position, amid remnants of mortality, and in a stench which must beggar description: he tells me he never witnessed a scene so odious or hideous. Minutes of Remarks on Subjects Picturesque, Moral, and Miscellaneous, William Webb, 1827
Thoughts on common graves, composting the dead, or a practical use for bones? Wait for the effluvia to clear before sending to chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Other grim and grewsome stories of funerary and mourning practices may be found in
See this link for an introduction to The Victorian Book of the Dead, a collection about the popular culture of Victorian mourning, featuring primary-source materials about corpses, crypts, and crape.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.