Wednesday, 2 May 2007


Miss Heidi lent me this one; she was really excited about it, and recited anecdotes with such enthusiam that I didn't realise when I appropriated it that she hadn't finished reading it yet! Ooops! Sorry Heidi!

Catharine Arnold's 'Necropolis' was an interesting read for me, because I don't usually read non-fiction (except for the Wikipedia of course). 'Necropolis' is a history of London's burial culture and practices, going right back to Roman Londinium. She takes her story through medieval, Elizabethan, Victorian and modern times; through cremation, burial and embalming; through morgues, churchyards and cemeteries; and through plagues, wars and disasters. She uses these points of departure to additionally comment on burial practices throughout Europe and the world, but also, more importantly, the history and development of London.

I found this book really interesting, as you really do learn a lot about the history of London outside of the specific topic; for example, you get hints of information about the development of certain diseases and the way they were dealth with, the way hospitals operated at various times, design and architectural aesthetics at different periods, the layout of the city, religion, land rights, as well as specific events in history. In this sense, the book uses death as a focal point for a general discussion of the development of a city: thus I found I have a much better broad understanding of British history from reading this book.

Of course the book does focus on death, and it's full of gory stories from the ages. Like the people who opened a coffin from a vault and found that the body had emitted a large amount some kind of liquid, so in the true spirit of the Enlightenment and the scientific method, they tasted it. omigod. SO. GROSS. And like the gravedigger who literally suffocated from the fumes of his overcrowded cemetery. There are also slightly less disgusting fun facts, like the reason why the Piccadilly line curves on its way out of London: because the straight course would run through an old burial field, with bones too dense to tunnel through. Or that the modern concept of the community park began through the development of common land burial grounds with a dual purpose. The book takes you from Roman cremation, to city churchyard burial, to overflowing city burial grounds, to the development of grand suburban cemeteries, to the Victorian culture of mourning, to World War monuments, to modern displays of death (eg. Diana's funeral), to new and environmentally friendly interments.

Considering I don't usually read non-fiction books, I really enjoyed this one, and considering its subject matter I had no problems reading it before bed (and I'm pretty squeamish about many things). It's rigorous enough to be interesting in an academic way, but light enough to read for fun. That being said, the main problem that I had with this book is that although Arnold tries to be quite thorough, she's so familiar with her subject matter that she occasionally forgets to spell out quite crucial elements to her non-expert readership. A few times, she would introduce a new concept, and only at that point would I realise I had been assuming it all along. For example; I realised only when she started to talk about their development, that headstones (at least for universal consumption) are a relatively recent invention. I'm still not quite sure when they were first invented, or when they became commonplace. Another example would be the embalming of the body. I didn't realise that this is standard in modern burials, and thus wasn't assuming it for the past either. And I didn't realise that coffins are built not to decompose. These are obviously such basic elements that Arnold takes them as assumed knowledge; however in light of our relatively closed modern attitudes to death, I personally would have found it helpful to have the spelled out a little more.

On the whole though, 'Necropolis' is a really thorough and informative book though, and in a broader sense than just about death. If you feel like a bit of non-fiction fibre, then I think you're likely to find it really interesting.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was a very diplomatic review Em! I'm even more desperate to get to it after what you've said... Pity there's so many assignments to be written first. *sigh*