Death, decomposition and dechristianization? Public health and church burial in eighteenth-century England

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Historians of medicine and public health have presented the successful campaigns for the closure of urban graveyards and the ending of burial in churches in the late eighteenth century as part of an Enlightenment policy of medical police and deodorization. Their analysis has complemented the Annaliste historiography of death which has seen these changes as a phase in the dechristianization of European society in which there was a separation of the living from the remains of their ancestors. This article re-examines these themes, using as its point of departure a pamphlet published by the London curate Thomas Lewis in 1721 which advocated the ending of interment in churches. The article shows how Lewis argued that this was necessary in order to prevent a possible outbreak of plague (which was ravaging Marseille when he was writing). It also demonstrates not only that the pamphlet reflected the author's High Church sympathies and his concern with the proper treatment of sacred places but also that Lewis drew extensively upon religious and historical scholarship investigating the burial customs of the ancient Church. It further shows that many of the religious arguments which Lewis used continued to be deployed by later burial reformers and suggests that in this respect Enlightenment public health campaigns supplemented older religious arguments.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)615-632
Number of pages17
JournalEnglish Historical Review
Issue number487
Publication statusPublished - 2005

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