From the street up to the adjacent graveyard the ground rises more than a metre. And the reason for this sudden rise is the bodies – 15,000 of them in a mass grave going back centuries. There are no headstones, no specific names to remember. This was the prostitute’s graveyard, the place to take the foreign sailor who had met his end in the bear-pits or brothels of the south bank, the place for the paupers and their children. Indeed, according to those who have been working on the site, the remains indicate that perhaps the majority of them were children.
No, it’s not Chechnya or Iraq, this is central London. And on a handkerchief of land a stone’s throw from the foodie heaven of Borough Market, in what was once one of the capital’s most notorious slums, and now valued at £25m by property developers.
According to an archeological dig conducted by the Museum of London in the 1990s, many of the dead had suffered from smallpox and tuberculosis. This was an inviting place for the body-snatchers from nearby Guy’s hospital. Nobody cared what happened to these people. This was a place for the outcast dead.
Lest we forget, was my thought, as I wandered around the Cross Bones graveyard, with its newly dug borders and Arthur de Mowbray’s magnificent sweeping cloister of an entrance. Fashioned in the shape of a goose’s wing, this cloister is a reference to “the Winchester geese”, a common name for women who had been licensed for sex work by the bishop of Winchester, in whose control the area lay. According to John Stow’s 1598 Survey of London, the Church wouldn’t bury these women in consecrated ground, but it would take their money to license them. Little wonder the dominant spirituality of the site is pagan.
Is “lest we forget” too strong a warning? This week, in response to a freedom of information request by the BBC, it was revealed that the number of so-called paupers’ funerals has risen by 11% in the past four years, with their overall cost rising about 30%. These are people too poor to pay their own funeral costs and too lonely to have others pay it for them. And they too are often buried in multiple unmarked graves one on top of the other. The legislation that obliges local authorities to bear the cost of such funerals is section 46 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 – as if, at the conclusion of their lives, the desperately poor have simply become a disease to be disposed of.
A familiar Beatles song comes into my head. “Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name. Nobody came. Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave. No one was saved.” God, how I know that horrendous empty feeling. I have been there, just me and a coffin and the undertaker looking at his watch. I think of Eddie Marsan in the extraordinary film Still Life – a council employee tasked with finding the relatives of those who had died alone. He is sacked for taking too much trouble over his work: “The council is undertaking a new round of efficiency savings,” he is told, “we are letting you go.”
And there are other contemporary echoes of the Cross Bones site. The London Assembly recently released figures showing that some parts of London have a greater percentage of their population with tuberculosis than Rwanda and Iraq. In Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Newham and Hounslow, some wards have rates of more than 150 people infected per 100,000. Years ago, my family took in a lonely man who had developed TB. He had no friends. I can still hear his hacking cough from the upstairs room. TB is associated with damp housing, with homelessness. It is more common among prisoners and refugees. It is the disease of the poor and the outcast.
A small band of dedicated volunteers has rescued the Cross Bones site from development. Instead of overpriced designer flats, it’s being turned into a calm place of reflection and memory. A tomb for the unknown dead, killed not by war but by poverty. Lest we forget.
Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2015/dec/03/lest-we-forget-the-growing-numbers-of-our-outcast-dead-destroyed-by-poverty