Constructing the grave: Competing burial ideals in nineteenth-century England

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During the first half of the nineteenth century in England, sanitary reformers applied themselves to the task of defining the ideal grave that would be capable of minimising the supposedly deleterious public health consequences of dangerous miasmas from decomposing remains. Following the lead of Edwin Chadwick, officials at the General Board of Health drew up scientific guidelines for vestries that had established cemeteries under the new Burial Acts. These guidelines required the placing of each grave in a defined plot, and envisaged their re-use: rapid decomposition would be effected by attention to drainage and soil type, and by placing just one body in each grave. This recommendation ran counter to a wider cultural preference for familial burial ‘in perpetuity’, which had been recognised and encouraged by new cemetery companies. A third type of grave was also in evidence in this period. Under the ‘common grave system’ multiple interments of unrelated individuals took place in exceptionally deep graves, running counter to both scientific and cultural preference. Regulation was largely permissive. Attention to actual grave management practice provokes re-evaluation of the Victorian cemetery. This space was not necessarily defined by scientific theory, and the bodies of the poor were not invariably marginalised.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)328-345
Number of pages18
JournalSocial History
Issue number3
Early online date12 Aug 2013
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013


  • burial
  • grave
  • cemetery
  • England
  • nineteenth-century

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