Review: Necropolis: London and Its Dead

Posted 6 October, 2014 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

Necropolis: London and its Dead
By: Catharine Arnold
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase

Layer upon layer of London soil reveals burials from pre-historic and medieval times. The city is one giant grave, filled with the remains of previous eras. The Houses of Parliament sit on the edge of a former plague pit; St Paul’s is built over human remains; Underground tunnels were driven through forgotten catacombs, thick with bones. A society can be judged by the way it treats its dead, and this is especially true of London. From Roman burial rites to the horrors of the plague, from the founding of the great Victorian cemeteries to the development of cremation and the cult of mourning that surrounded the death of Diana, Princess of Wales – Necropolis leaves no headstone unturned in its exploration of our changing attitudes towards the deceased among us.

I’ve had this book on the want-to-read pile for ages; it’s always interesting to check out these kinds of history/culture non-fiction titles that look at a particular aspect of society that you wouldn’t think to consider the history of. And, in keeping with Hallowe’en happening later this month, it just seemed fitting to read a non-fiction title on cemeteries and burial customs (I swear it wasn’t planned or anything!).

Necropolis focuses on a fascinating piece of English & London history: its cemeteries. It’s a bit of a morbid topic, and yet cemeteries and burial customs tells us a lot about society at a given period and the values and beliefs associated with death customs. It’s quite a romp through all the periods of history, looking at burial customs and attitudes towards death from the time the island was under Roman rule until the modern day. I was quite impressed at how concise the narrative was, which would appeal to the casual nonfiction history reader but may leave somnething wanting for more steady history readers.

At times though it can be quite a flurry of names and figures, especially in the Victorian era chapters. However, most of them at least connect to larger issues that the author is trying to get across with regards to burial rites of the times. I initially found it a bit strange–and perhaps a little boring?–how there were so many chapters dedicated to the 19th century compared to the rest of the book. But then again it made sense to do so as a lot of the customs we attribute to funerals nowadays came out of the 19th century (not to mention we probably have the most material from that period). But on the other hand, it makes for an uneven read, especially as the 20th century was crammed into one chapter. I also really wished that the book had an introduction and conclusion chapters, just to wrap up the topic nicely (plus, it’s very useful for researchers).

In conclusion, Necropolis was a very interesting read; I learned a lot from this book, not only about burial customs over the course of English history but what it said about society at the time and how it reflected certain attitudes or what was popular then. I was a bit disappointed that my eBook refused to load the images that accompanied the piece, and it was a rather uneven read at times, but I would recommend this title for readers of non-fiction history and those interested in English history and cultural history.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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