This month, Londoners are confronting their own mortality while exploring the capital’s shadowy corners. The ‘Month of the Dead’ was arranged by event organisers a Curious Invitation and Antique Beat.
Talks, workshops and tours investigating London’s relationship with the deceased are being hosting throughout October at the chapels of Brompton and Kensal Green cemeteries. Visitors have been offered the opportunity to view Hyde Park’s pet cemetery, the Museum of London’s bone archive and take part in a series of weekend death salons with talks on subjects ranging from public dissection and body snatching to reincarnation and funereal folklore. Experts offered workshops on taxidermy, a guided tour of Spitalfields Charnel House and a candlelit concert in Brompton Cemetery.
The talks run alongside a fundraising appeal for the restoration of Brompton Cemetery. 20 percent of the ticket sales are donated to the site’s conservation. A matching fund campaign with the Heritage Lottery meant every donation doubled in value.
Two death cafes took place as part of the event, offering tea, cake and discussions of mortality. Louise de Winter, who hosted the Abney Park Cemetery Death Cafe on October 11, said: “It was another enlightening, life-affirming Death Cafe, this time in the middle of the beautiful Abney Cemetery. Conversations focussed around all aspects of death, dying, life and living from terrible funeral experiences to seizing the moment and the right-to-die movement. The star guests were Summer and Winter, two children who shared their experiences of death as eloquently as the adults.”
Jon Underwood set up the first UK death cafe in 2011. He commented: “To date we’ve had over 2,400 Death Cafe in 32 countries. These have been remarkably well received and show the idea that people don’t want to talk about death is untrue. On this basis we’re working to set up a real Death Cafe in London. A community share offer in support of this is running until 19th December 2015. Please see our website: http://crowdfunder.co.uk/deathcafelondon/.”
Other events included ‘The Cemetery of All Souls’ a guided tour of Kensal Green Cemetery. It was carried out by Robert Stephenson, a qualified City of London and Cultural Heritage Guide and a trustee of Kendal Green and Brompton cemeteries on October 3. Visitors also had the opportunity to view Abney Park cemetery a week later.
John Baldock, who has worked for the Abney Park Trust for nearly five years, guided a group around what’s believed to be the first non-denominational garden cemetery in Europe. He said: “My tour on the 11th October for the Month of the Dead was attended by 20 people and was scheduled to run for 45 mins although it lasted just over an hour due to the audience wanting to see and hear more of Abney Park.
“The unique gothic setting of Abney Park is a step back in time, providing a peaceful environment for people to contemplate death and the burial practices of the past.”
Jane Sidell of Historic England led a tour of the subterranean charnel house in Spitalfields for a group of keen explorers: “The building dates to the early fourteenth century and stored the disturbed remains of bodies buried in the graveyard of the Augustinian Priory of St Mary without Bishopsgate.
“The charnel house was discovered in 1999, and preserved owing to its exceptional size, completeness and decorativeness. It needed to be large because a catastrophe cemetery was present on the site, in part relating to the great famines of the early fourteenth century. During the excavation which led to the discovery of the charnel house, 10, 516 skeletons were excavated by the archaeological team from the Museum of London Archaeology Service.
“The building is preserved and visible through a large window, but access inside is rarely possible. The Month of the Dead supporters received a detailed tour of the site, discussing the issues of preservation and architecture.” Later in the afternoon, at Brompton Cemetery Chapel, Jane gave a talk on the Priory and its history, and the development of the burial ground and charnel house. The audience seemed very interested in this fascinating site and lots of questions were asked about the cemetery and the medieval attitudes to death and the afterlife.
For more information on the London Month of the Dead go to www.londonmonthofthedead.com.