Background to the cemetery movement

Photo credit: Teresa Verney-Brookes

Traditionally, burials were the responsibility of the Church – with the rich and the nobility generally interred inside the church, sometimes within vaults and adorned with Classical monuments, wall plaques and grave slabs – a practice that continued into the 19th century.

In contrast the poor were buried outside in churchyards, mostly without any headstone or at the very least a small marker with the deceased’s initials. The image below is an example of the many markers at Reading Old Cemetery.

Photograph - close up image of a small 'marker' headstone with initials C.H.L 1890 plus j.L 1875 A.L 1876
Photo credit: Teresa Verney-Brookes

During the 18th century, rapid growth in population, particularly in urban areas, led to the chronic overcrowding of burials both inside and outside churches. This in turn lead to growing concerns about public health implications arising from these highly insanitary conditions.  Some sources note that churchgoers were put off going to services as the smell of rotting corpses was too overwhelming. It was also widely reported that “noxious vapours seeped from the soil, corpse gas would explode coffins, pieces of body would appear above ground and the living breathed in the atmosphere of the dead”  (The National Federation of Cemetery Friends, Saving Cemeteries, 2019).

Additionally, “the objection of some Nonconformist denominations – for example, Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians – to the consecration of burial meant dissenting congregations often used the small space surrounding their chapels or bought small areas of land specifically for the purpose of interment. Burial grounds opened by the Non-conformists from the 1650s e.g. Bunhill Fields, just north of the city of London and by the Jewish Cemetery (the first being in the East End of London in 1657) did provide an alternative.  Thus, from the increase in demand for burial land that was not controlled by the Church of England, comes the emergence of cemeteries”  (The National Federation of Cemetery Friends, Saving Cemeteries, 2019).

During 1843, Sir Edwin Chadwick’s report On the Results of a Special Inquiry into the Practice of interment in Towns recommended that all burials in towns and cities were stopped.  This led to the 1850 Metropolitan Act which authorised the Board of Health to provide publicly funded cemeteries in London, extending to the provinces in 1853.

Also, as Rutherford (The Victorian Cemetery, 2008) notes, the “Ancient Roman idea of locating burials and cemeteries on the edge of towns was revived from the 17th century onwards, promoted by notable architects and thinkers such as Sir Christopher Wren, John Evelyn and Sir John Vanbrugh”.  Furthermore, during the 18thcentury, a cemetery movement was developing worldwide. 

A series of Acts in the 1840s and 1850s (known as the Burial Acts) enabled a national system of public cemeteries to be established, which in turn led to the widespread creation of many new, landscaped, public cemeteries throughout Britain – many of which were based on the ‘Garden Cemetery’ model.

Thus, as Rutherford (The Victorian Cemetery, 2008) states the “British precedent provided the framework for solving the problems both of overcrowded churchyards, and of providing burial space for various Christian denominations and other religions, until now only catered for by the Anglican churchyards and the scattered, small burial grounds.” 

Cemetery at Bunhill Fields, Finsbury, London, 1866. Illustration: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy

An article in The Guardian (22/1/2015) outlines in more detail what they describe as “the grisly secrets of dealing with Victorian’s London’s dead“.

The Historic England website has lots of interesting information about the importance of Victorian and other historical cemeteries and

For information on the location of other cemetery friends or how to start a voluntary group see the National Federation of Cemetery Friends: .The Friends of Reading Old Cemetery are very proud to a member of this group alongside many other well-known Victorian cemeteries – including some of ‘The Magnificent Seven’ in London.