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Necropolis: London and Its Dead

3.71  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,089 Ratings  ·  129 Reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, New Edition, 320 pages
Published March 5th 2007 by Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd. (first published January 1st 2006)
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Jul 23, 2014 Melki rated it really liked it
If you like reading history with a slightly macabre touch, you should find this book to be absolutely fascinating.

Here is a brief overview of burial customs through the centuries, from the mass graves hurriedly dug for plague victims to the rising social acceptance of cremation.

Several chapters are devoted to the Victorians who elevated mourning and bereavement to an art form. Much like the lavish wedding industry that exists today, funerals were BIG business. Stores like Jay's London General M
Sep 06, 2012 Nikki rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Necropolis is surprisingly compelling and readable. Most of it isn't at all dry or dull -- at times the names and dates blur into each other, but most of it is fascinating. It covers traditions of burial and mourning from the pre-Roman period to more or less the present, especially as concerns London.

It's kind of amazing how we take relatively recent burial traditions for granted -- for my family, the plot of land bought years ago, the simple headstones, a flowerbed over the grave, and an expec
Apr 13, 2013 Mark rated it really liked it
I do not think I actually want to know how many of my reviews on here touch on the subject of the soul of place, of genius loci. It's a fair few, and I doubt that number will be a static one. And so it goes. I have to wonder whether studying the spirit of a city like London, a city which has a distinct personality, one that has aged and matured like a person might, whether such a course might aid me in detecting the spirit of smaller places, towns and cities less venerable. Maybe, maybe not. Thi ...more
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
Jan 31, 2015 Bjorn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: uk
Reading Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography a few years ago, I was struck (as Ackroyd intended) by the idea of genius loci: the soul of a place. Every single person, every single building, every single atom of London has been replaced several times over - and yet the places remain, the names remain, the ghosts remain.

Which is very much where Necropolis lives. Dealing with both the logistics and the emotions surrounding death in a large city that has to make room for both living and dead, it's
Jul 29, 2015 Abbey rated it liked it
Shelves: history, grotesquerie
I love it when my reading overlaps. I was reading "Arthur and George" by Julian Barnes, and his character Arthur muses about death while traveling past Woking. I knew what he was thinking about because I was also reading "Necropolis."

The best part of the book for me is the story of the huge cemetery in Woking - the planning, the train station built especially for funerals from London (60 a day), and its fall into disuse.

Overall, I gave it a 3 because it didn't keep my attention like it should
Apr 09, 2015 Andrea rated it liked it
Shelves: history, london
In thinking about cities and how they work I never considered death in its proper light, and what burial requires in a crowded metropolis. Having just finished Necropolis: London and its Dead, that has certainly changed. Neighbourhoods founded on putrescence, typhoid, bones emerging from the ground along with noxious gases and flying beetles, all of these things were unknown to me and dwelt upon at greater length here.

I enjoyed this book, though it is more an historical presentation of quirks an
Arnold looks at death and funerary rites and people's attitudes towards death, mainly centred around London. She covers everything from the pre-Roman era to the defiance of Londoners after the bombings of 2005. Truly fascinating and Arnold has such a wonderful writing style that veers towards the chatty rather than the academic.
Jun 27, 2016 Loren rated it it was amazing
London is basically built on layer upon layer of graves. The book opens with the Bronze Age tumulus on Parliament Hill, which she calls one of the oldest burial grounds in the city, predating Highgate Cemetery by over 4000 years. I would have liked to hear much more about the earliest burials in the area.

And I would have liked to read more about the Roman-era graves as well. I was thoroughly fascinated by the earliest chapters of this book, since those are the times I am the least familiar with.
Dec 22, 2010 Lizixer rated it really liked it
Beginning far back in the mists of time at the bronze age tumulus on Parliament Hill and ending in an informal memorial garden in Kings Cross for the victims of a terrorist bombing, Catherine Arnald explores both changing attitudes to death and the ways that disposal of the dead changed. Our mediaeval ancestors lived cheek by jowl with death burying their dead close by, but cataclysmic events such as the Black Death and the 1665 plague spelled changes that eventually saw the end of inner city bu ...more
Nov 19, 2013 Tom rated it really liked it
When a book is introduced with the line "London is one giant grave" you know you're in for a good time. It skips quite merrily through the history of Roman and Saxon burial before getting into the meat of things: the plague, and the history of the grand Victorian cemeteries. There's the odd (very welcome) poetic interlude, and it really gets across quite how grotty London has been for most of its history - until recently the price of city living was a remarkably high death toll. Along the way to ...more
Feb 13, 2016 ^ rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those with an eye for the off-beat
Very enjoyable, and a stark reminder of how quickly and massively London has grown. As the present-day population continues to increase, one cannot help but wonder what future technologies will develop for the disposal of our dead.

I should have liked to have learned more about Roman and Saxon cremation / burial practices in London; however, I guess I shall simply have to take myself off the Museum of London.

This book doesn’t really get into its stride until it reaches description and discussio
Sep 01, 2015 Siobhan rated it liked it
We all have those family members who like to lumber you with things once they find out about your interest.

Well this book came from my aunt when she found out about my interest in forensic psychology. Supposedly I need to become an expert in the criminal world – mainly I need to be able to recite the heinous acts of countless individuals across history.

Okay, maybe she did not put it like that but it sort of felt that way when she handed me numerous books on the topic.

Still, despite the fact that
Dec 28, 2013 Anjella rated it it was ok
Started off well but got very dry and boring after a while. The cover says "Catharine Arnold romps across the cemeteries" but it's much more of a trudge with an occasional trip over a grave to give a story about someone buried, but the actually interesting stories seem to be just hinted at and left behind. The early sections were good, though so little of burials pre-Roman times unfortunately, but once it hits the Victorian era she gets bogged down in details of who bought what cemetery and for ...more
Rachel- Goodbye Borders
It's interesting how the dead have been treated throughout history. It's amazing to me that London is (essentially) one big grave. It makes sense given the space and the amount of people that have lived there since time began.

It was interesting to read about cremation and it falling out of favor with the rise of Christianity. Then it coming back into favor hundreds of years later whether for cost, space, or preference.

This was a bit more academic then I thought it would be. Don't get me wron
Aug 30, 2014 Chris rated it liked it
Interesting subject, starts off absorbing but gets more dry as it goes. About 1/3 of the way in it largely degenerates into a historical timeline with a few meager bits of human interest. Although the author can appreciate the humor of others, she doesn't display humor in her own writing.
Julie Brown
May 31, 2016 Julie Brown rated it liked it
While this book was an intriguing read, some of the items stated as facts were not true. For example, in Chapter 3, p. 34, she says that Cardinal Wolsey was sent to the scaffold, but he wasn't. Cardinal Wolsey died of an illness on his way to see Henry VIII; it's a well-documented fact. He was probably going to be executed, but he died naturally before it could happen. On p. 35, she says that Anne Boleyn was only convicted of treason, not incest. Anne Boleyn WAS convicted of incest, as well as t ...more
Kirsti (Melbourne on my mind)
This was fine, but not as interesting as I was hoping.

Essentially three quarters of the book focuses on Victorian London and the "cult of death". Which is understandable in some ways - it was during the Victorian period that cemeteries moved out of the city, it was during the Victorian period that mourning really became a thing, it was during the Victorian period that cremation started to pop up.

But at the same time, there's SO MUCH MORE to London's history, and having one chapter on pre-histo
Carole Tyrrell
Jan 28, 2014 Carole Tyrrell rated it really liked it
This is a second reading of this informative and often lively book on how London treats its dead.
London is actually a giant burial ground and Arnold begins her tour of the city at its oldest burial site; Parliament Hill Fields’ Bronze Age tumulus. Then she reveals how layer upon layer of London soil is filled with the dead. In fact, the Houses of Parliament sits on the edge of a former plague pit, St Paul’s is built over human remains and underground tunnels are often tunnelled through
Dec 07, 2012 Roxanne rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, anthro
The subject matter of this book was fascinating - how the people of London have handled the burial/disposal of the dead over many centuries - but the book left me a little flat. The chapters are in roughly chronological order, but within each chapter, I thought the material could have been organized a little better. There were some spots where Arnold repeats herself, which a good editor should have caught. There are a few photos included in the book, but I would have liked more, and some charts/ ...more
Jul 23, 2011 Kari rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I enjoyed this. It's an area of history that is generally neglected but I found it really interesting. Why talk about dead people when you can discuss kings and queens?! It was good to find out where certain customs and funeral traditions originated. Sometimes Arnold jumped around a bit from subject to subject which could be confusing. I'm sure she started making a point about the problems of burying prisoners that she never finished! Or maybe I just missed it. It felt like while writing she wou ...more
Mar 05, 2008 S rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not exactly the book I was expecting it to be, as I figured from the title and back notes made it sound like it would be a big historical about London and its graveyards, almost like a tour guide of the grave sites.
It's more about how London handled mass jumps in dead during the times of the plagues and how death and graveyards where viewed and effected life during the Victorian times.
While it wasn't what I was expecting it was better then I thought it was going to be. A good read, more so if yo
Mar 15, 2014 Chris rated it liked it
A very interesting book about a somewhat ghoulish topic.

It is truly eye opening to read about how the dead were perceived and treated by people in the past. Very differently to ourselves but I often felt this was more out of necessity than any kind of cultural reasons.

I had no idea something as simple as the layout of cities and advancements in medicine could make such a difference in peoples attitudes. As little as 180 years ago our ancestors thought nothing of living in fairly close proximity
Jul 24, 2016 Matthias rated it liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
This would've been better as Necropolis: Victorian London and Its Dead. The chapters on Victorian London were the meat and majority of the book and the most competently written and interesting (barring some unsubstantiated anecdotes and too much boring detail of cemetery construction and architecture and what sort of monument who has. It's not a guide book, we only need so much of that). The whole twentieth century was squeezed into the final chapter and again, there was too much detailing of mo ...more
Kristi Thielen
Aug 16, 2014 Kristi Thielen rated it it was amazing
Engrossing book about the history of London's cemeteries, the problems of dealing with mass death during epidemics and plagues, the evolution of funeral customs and how societal changes inpacted the mourning process.

I live in the western United States, which has been sparsely populated for so long - even the native peoples who were here before Europeans did not inhabit this area in high numbers - that the issue of "where do we find the space to bury all these bodies?" is nonexistent. Before rea
May 24, 2010 h rated it liked it
Shelves: the-dead, reread, 2009, 2010
good info, enthusiastic writing, lots of details. could have used more editorial work (disorganized). i now need to research the music hall tune "they're moving grandpa's grave to build a sewer."

reread on may 24, 2010 because i somehow picked it up & couldn't remember if i'd read it before or not. then once i was like 3 pages in i realized i had. still entertaining.
Jun 02, 2014 Silvia rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
I love the history of London and I have a bit of a taste for the macabre, so this book was obviously going to end up in my collection as soon as I saw it popping up among one of my friends’ reads. I come from a city that has thousands of years of history, yet what makes London unique and fascinating in my eyes is what I call its ‘consistency’ – there is a strong sense of continuity between its past and its present, which you can see, live and breathe as you walk around the City or along the Tham ...more
Dec 24, 2014 J.M. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very informative, not just of London and its dead but of the culture of death and how our attitudes have changed over the years in regards to death, its customs, and funerary practices. I enjoyed this a lot, but it was very dense in parts. I'd give it more of a 3.5 than a 4, but I rounded up.
Feb 01, 2014 Janice rated it really liked it
Necropolis is a must read for any mortuary student. The book is engaging and well-written.
Arnold traces London's burial customs from its Celtic inhabitants through Roman occupation and Anglo-Saxon conquest. It's like a history of London as viewed through the way the citizens handled their dead. Much of the book is devoted to the Black Death of 1348, the Great Plague of 1665, the Great London Fire, Victorian mourning customs, the effects of World War One, and dealing with the Blitz in World War T
Lisa Ward
Feb 28, 2015 Lisa Ward rated it liked it
Call me odd, but I do like graveyards.
This book was a ripping read, I tore through, as the information is horrific and compelling, but written in a good balance of scholarly assessment and human interest - it's not a morbid taste for bones, but an undeniable human attraction to the slightly macabre.

It feels as though the early London era is glossed over, as if the author wasn't as interested in the archaeological end of studies, or couldn't find enough first hand sources they wanted to use. This
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Catharine Arnold read English at Cambridge and holds a further degree in psychology. A journalist, academic and popular historian, Catharine's previous books include the novel "Lost Time", winner of a Betty Trask award. Her London trilogy for Simon & Schuster comprises of "Necropolis: London and Its Dead", "Bedlam: London and Its Mad" and "City of Sin: London and Its Vices".
More about Catharine Arnold...

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“Meanwhile, we have carved out a place for ourselves among the dead; the glittering pinnacles of commerce rise along the skyline, their foundations sunk in a charnel house; and the lost lie forgotten below us as, overhead, we persaude ourselves that we are immortal and carry on the business of life.” 2 likes
“The Romans feared their dead. In fact, Roman funeral customs derived from a need to propitiate the sensibilities of the departed. The very word funus may be translated as dead body, funeral ceremony, or murder. There was a genuine concern that, if not treated appropriately, the spirits of the dead, or manes, would return to wreak revenge” 2 likes
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