Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Guest Blogger Brenda W. Clough: Cemetery Decor


Memorial Day may have already happened, but in Victorian England, every day was Memorial Day. My friend and fellow Book View Cafe author Brenda W. Clough explains why.

The 19th century was prime time for cemeteries and monuments. Partly this was a status thing. If you were important, you wanted a big fancy tomb so that everyone for the next thousand years or so would appreciate your status. Also partly this was just the look of the time. For Victorians, more was more – another pattern, some more marble fretwork, always good.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The Albert Memorial, erected by Queen Victoria in memory of her husband Prince Albert, carries this just about as far as it can go.  It cost millions of pounds and is adorned with lots of friezes and allegorical statue groups. The ornate Gothic spire, 176 feet tall, shelters a statue of the Prince plated in gold.  The Queen wanted to be sure that everybody, for all time, could see at a glance how important and wonderful her Prince was. 


But there’s also the issue of personalization. You don’t want your tomb to look just like everyone else’s, do you? Sure, you could just have a statue of yourself, but everybody famous does that. When you look at that gold statue of Prince Albert, do you get any sense of why he was interesting? No.


Photo by Nicholas Jackson
This one is a great example of how it should be done. George Wombwell ran a famous traveling menagerie in the mid-1800s in England. His favorite lion Nero went with him everywhere. Now a statue of Nero lies mourning on Wombwell’s grave in London, making the lion tamer’s last resting place instantly recognizable and one of the favorite sights of Highgate Cemetery.

And then there are purely practical considerations. In Victorian England it was difficult for doctors to study anatomy by dissection. The only way to get a fresh human body was by finding an execution, and there just weren’t that many criminals getting the death penalty. The demand became so severe that a grave-robbing industry sprang up. Criminals would sneak into the cemetery at night, suss out the freshest grave, and dig up the coffin. Then they’d pop the body out for sale to med students.


Mortsafe, Greyfriars Kirkyard; photo by Kim Traynor

It got sufficiently bad that the family might guard the cemetery at night for a while, to be sure that Grandpa didn’t get stolen after his funeral. If they had the money, they might also have a mortsafe installed over the gravesite. This was simply a large grate bolted down over the tomb, something like a bike lock only for coffins. Nowadays people like to think that these were to be sure the dead person didn’t rise up like a zombie. But in the 19th century, it was to ensure that he’d really rest in peace.  


Brenda W. Clough
is the first female Asian-American SF writer, first appearing in print in 1984. Her novella ‘May Be Some Time’ was a finalist for both the Hugo and the Nebula awards and became the novel Revise the World. Her latest time travel trilogy is Edge to Center, available at Book View Café.  
In 2021 she began publishing Marian Halcombe, a series of eleven neo-Victorian thrillers. Marian will tell you herself that she is a proper Victorian lady, because this keeps people happy--and unsuspecting. But those who know her will tell you that she's the most dangerous woman in Europe. Her adventures are appearing one a month at BVC, and the first volume is free! Get it here: Marian Halcombe | Book View Cafe. Brenda's complete bibliography is up on her web page, brendaclough.net



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