Britain holds many early Victorian burial grounds that were built as a private speculation to house the dead of the growing and modernising cities. To mention them today is to conjure up images of un-maintained memorials falling into decay and submerged in undergrowth, while the site is neglected and bankrupt. A commonly-accepted wisdom is that this state came about as a result of a fundamentally-flawed business model. This argument assumes that the success of a privately-run cemetery was premised on a continuous supply of virgin land, with capacity for new burials long into the future. Many of these graves were sold in perpetuity absolute thus limiting the capacity of the ground and blocking the opportunity for later reuse and resale. Therefore, when faced with increasing demand for burial space from a growing population, the cemetery found itself without a purpose when its supply of virgin land ran out. No longer relevant, it would be unable to maintain itself. Reformers would discourage wasting further money on burials. A cumulative state of decline and neglect of these sites would be the inevitable outcome.
Yet when they were first founded, these private cemeteries grabbed the popular imagination, with a financial ‘bubble’, speculating in new burial grounds. Clearly, as the population grew there would always be a need to properly dispose of them when they died. Many of the cemetery companies’ customers, the purchasers of the burial plots, were patently expecting a level of permanence and decency for their dead, as they invested heavily in dramatic and sentimental monuments. Had they been fooled into buying into an impossible dream? And were the owners and financiers, the shareholders, so naïve that they were tricked into buying into a speculation bubble? With access to funds, investments and innovative thinking, was private enterprise singularly unable to adapt to the future?
This paper reconstructs the financial ethos behind these speculative enterprises, and challenges the real reason for decline. It appears that the actions of central and local government meddled with and frustrated the commercial cemeteries at various times, before setting up publicly-financed rivals. When these struggled, it passed legislation that granted advantages to the public sector over their private rivals. The paper compares two cemeteries, the private cemetery at Norwood, south London, and the Ryde Cemetery, Isle of Wight, founded by a local authority burial board. The findings suggest that the commercial business model was not flawed in itself: it could have been successful had not central and local government undermined it (sometimes accidentally, sometimes intentionally) by their laws and actions. But by doing so they dragged down the business of both private and public cemeteries.