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Necropolis: London and Its Dead

(Catharine Arnold's London #1)

3.77  ·  Rating details ·  1,874 ratings  ·  206 reviews
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 current approach of metropolitan society towards death and bereavement -- including more recent trends to displays of collective grief and the cult of mourning, such as that surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales -- NE ...more
Kindle Edition, 320 pages
Published October 15th 2008 by Simon & Schuster UK (first published January 1st 2006)
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Sep 24, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 19, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 22, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: London & cemetery lovers!
So much phenomenal information on London and its dead! Catharine Arnold’s Necriopolis: London and Its Dead is a beautifully researched book on burial practices in London beginning with The Celts & The Romans - both pagan religions. The first line in this book is “High above London stands one of the city’s oldest burial grounds.” This sentence refers to “The Bronze Age tumulus on Parliament Hill Fields” which is ‘over 4000’ years older than the Victorian cemeteries (1800s) that were developed suc ...more
Apr 13, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 28, 2013 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Nov 04, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Why does the tube make those weird turns between Knightsbridge and South Kensington?

Why do we wear the colour black for mourning?

Why was King James I not allowed to enter London for days after the death of Queen Elisabeth I ?

Questions like these are answered in this entertaining and informative book, and the answers all have to do with funerals. As a former gravedigger I have a professional interest in cemeteries, but I'm generally interested in funerals.

Also, since London has been my chosen hom
Dec 29, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fact
An interesting book that, although focusing on London, I found answered questions about British people's relationship with death and the disposal of bodies how that has changed and why it has needed to - population growth, disease and war amongst things that have forced the method of perceiving death and disposing of bodies differently. The book was a bit bottom heavy, more detail about more recent time compared with Roman times, but that is to be expected as there is far more documented about t ...more
Jan 17, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
3.5 stars. Even though it's about a subject I'm interested in and it's very readable I wasn't in love with this book as I was thinking I would be. But it's very interesting and full of macabre facts. ...more
Florin Pitea
Jan 09, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Very well documented, nicely written, with relevant examples and black-and-white images. Recommended.
Jan 25, 2015 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
Apr 02, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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. ...more
Apr 07, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 12, 2011 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
Mar 21, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: cemetery-books
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 19, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Julie Brown
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
Nov 19, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Jun 14, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2009, reread, the-dead, 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.
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. ...more
Bess Lovejoy
Excellent scholarship, but there's a lack of narrative drive. ...more
Emily Pallett
Jan 30, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not a huge lover of non-fiction, but a friend gave me this book to read because she knew of my macabre interests. And I must admit I found it extremely interesting and it was definitely up my street. I loved learning about how they buried folk during the plague and I was really keen to read about typical Victorian mourning fashions.
I even felt a little emotional when reading about WW1 and 2 because of my personal connection with the RAF.
Definitely a good read for those with a more 'danse mac
I will admit I got bored with this. It was a good popular history, with detailed references that drew on a lot of different sources. However, she seemed to tell stories more than anything there was very little historical analysis or arguments. It was description more than anything and there seemed to be a lack of logic for some of the chapters and digressions within the chapters. Still fairly entertaining, though I think I'd recommend hearing the author speak instead of reading the book. ...more
Christina Rothfusz
A overview on the burial traditions in London from the Celts and Romans and their Pagan practices, through the theatre of Victorian mourning and onwards.

I’ve visited a few of the WW cemeteries, and the chapter on that devastation was particularly interesting. I am always surprised to find how much of normal live was absolutely changed in the aftermath.

Would’ve liked more of the ancient burial stories and found this an extremely interesting read.
Nov 13, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was fascinating. Lots of interesting information about how London has dealt with its dead, through all the ages. Strong emphasis on those periods when the number of deaths has increased through outbreaks of the plague and of cholera etc. Whilst mostly fascinating some sections, especially those dealing with the Victorian era, seemed to pall a little.
Aug 26, 2019 marked it as dnf
I have this problem with nonfiction books where they can have the most interesting concepts, but once I start reading them, I just can't focus at all and I'm bored? I should probably learn my lesson and stop reading nonfiction when it takes months to read 1/5th of a book, but ALL THE COOL CONCEPTS

tldr; it's not you, it's me
Mar 16, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Easy to read and informative history book. The chapters on the history of London’s ‘maginificent seven’ and other huge cemeteries were of particular interest to me.
Oct 27, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved this.

However, I do think the author needed to do more research on prehistoric burial, a lot of the information in the first section is inaccurate.
I would also have liked to have seen more information on non Anglican burial and the colonial connections attached to styles of burials and the funding of individuals and cemeteries.
London has been multicultural for a long time, longer than most people think and it would have been nice to see the research reflect 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

Other books in the series

Catharine Arnold's London (4 books)
  • Bedlam: London and Its Mad
  • The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City---Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages
  • Underworld London: Crime and Punishment in the Capital City

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154 likes · 16 comments
“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.” 4 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” 4 likes
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