JOURNAL ENTRY: The Necropolis
(Aug. 30, 2013) I heard about the Necropolis on a British radio station. The narrator described a kind of strange, Victorian, death train that was built in response to the dangerous overcrowding of the cemeteries in London. Seems to be a theme running through so many of the places I’ve visited – Paris’s Catacombs, Haworth’s wells contaminated by the thousands of decaying bodies in their own graveyard. In Victorian London, finding a plot to bury your loved one became so difficult that graves were dug up and reused, often leaving bones and body parts strewn over the ground.
Things became desperate when a cholera outbreak killed 15,000 people in the mid-1800s. But the proposal to build a cemetery in the countryside and link it by train service was highly controversial. Train travel was still very new and considered to be dirty and unrefined, not appropriate to the dignity of a proper burial. Charles Dickens himself hated trains. Nevertheless, The London Necropolis Company was formed in 1852 and the first train rumbled down the track with its unusual cargo in November 1854. The people gradually came to accept The Necropolis, even jokingly referring to it as “the stiff express.” But what I find most amusing is that even the coffin tickets for the train were divided into classes! Each “hearse” was split into three sections, and the most expensive section was more highly decorated and offered better handling of the coffin at both ends of the journey. Even stranger, while the dead were offered three classes of accommodation, their living relatives were afforded only two! It’s easy to think of this as completely ridiculous, but we all practice it in varying degrees when a loved one dies, don’t we? After all, what difference does it really make how nicely-dressed the dead are? Makes you think.
One great story from the time of the Necropolis involves none other than Mohandas Gandhi - later the Mahatma. He was 21 years old at the time and studying law at University College in London. He attended the funeral of Charles Bradlaugh, a controversial free-thinker who championed unfashionable causes like birth control, atheism, and anti-imperialism, including Indian independence from Britain. After the funeral, while waiting for his return train, Gandhi overheard a noisy argument between an atheist and a clergyman who were deep in furious debate over the existence of God. There are also stories about golfers who would take advantage of the Necropolis’s lower train fares by dressing up as mourners to get a cheap ride to the golf club!
But it was the German Luftwaffe that finally killed the Necropolis. On April 16, 1941, thousands of bombs rained down on London, killing thousands of people and badly damaging the Westminster Bridge terminus, where the Necropolis train was berthed. After the war, rebuilding it was deemed too expensive, and the advent of the motor hearse had made it obsolete. The Necropolis became Brookwood Cemetery.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I boarded the train at Waterloo to visit Brookwood. Something more than just a cemetery, I suppose. I got off the train at Brookwood and walked about half a mile through an extension of the cemetery that was developed in the 20th century. Out of this section and down a busy road to the original Necropolis gates. Walked through part of the sprawling cemetery and saw many older graves mixed with newer. There are lots of wooded areas. All very peaceful and deserted. I only saw three other people during my entire visit – a groundskeeper busily working, a man who marched past me as if he was in a hurry to meet someone – living or dead, I don’t know – and one of the monks from the St. Edward Brotherhood who now reside in the South Station Chapel. This chapel is one of only two of the original Necropolis chapels to have survived.
In the end, what once made this place special is now gone. You can still see bits of the tracks from the old railway line that used to run straight into the cemetery, but the demise of the train service has transformed the Necropolis into Brookwood - just a cemetery like any other.
You can view a short documentary by Adam Leats on the Necropolis and learn more about it on Planet Slade.
GUEST WRITER'S BIO
Vicki Speegle is an award-winning screenwriter whose feature script LOVED ONES was in development at Amazon Studios and was a finalist for best screenplay. Her screenplay DEAREST was a finalist for the 2011 Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and her television pilot THE WAKES OF WILBUR POE recently placed in the finals of Slamdance.
Vicki grew up the daughter of a gay single mom turned pastor in Akron, Ohio, where she helped take care of her two younger brothers, an experience that provided fodder for a number of short stories and scripts. Her infatuation with storytelling began at the age of five when she sent a love letter to Donny Osmond, and since then she has worked an eclectic mix of jobs to support her writing habit, including 4 years in the U.S. Navy tracking nuclear submarines on a tiny island called Adak, Alaska, assistant to a very eccentric New York City artist, and a brief bout as the world’s worst waitress. Vicki studied music performance and education at Akron University before making the move to New York University, where she earned her BFA in Film & Television Production. During her studies at NYU she interned as assistant to the editor for Ken Burns’ production of THE WEST. She wrote, directed, and produced several shorts, including her thesis film OLDER, which went on to screen at the Tribeca Underground Film Festival and won 2nd place in the Pioneer Theatre Short Film Slam in New York City.
After graduating from NYU, Vicki joined Rigas Entertainment as assistant to the Director of Development, helping in the development of feature films with directors Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty) and Maggie Greenwald (SongCatcher). In 2005 Vicki began shooting a documentary about her mother’s struggle to reconcile her faith as a pastor with her advancing Alzheimer’s. The project is currently in post-production and has garnered the support of GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). In 2007 Vicki’s screenplay LOVED ONES placed in the top 5 of the Bluecat Screenplay Competition and won Screenplay Live at the Rochester Film Festival. Her works have placed in several other competitions, including Women in Film, Chesterfield, and American Zoetrope. Vicki’s credits include a teen comedy for Applause Films and radio scripts for Wynton Marsalis, Director of Jazz At Lincoln Center.
Vicki lives and works as a writer, filmmaker, and web producer in New Jersey. She is still waiting for Donny’s response.