1839: Gatherings from Graveyards

George Alfred Walker was a doctor who worked in London’s Drury Lane in the 1830s. Walker’s Gatherings from Graveyards, published in 1839, was particularly important in promoting the cause of burial reform.

Gatherings from Graveyards followed in an extended tradition of burial reform publications. This tradition had begun on the continent and was influenced by the Enlightenment which sought rational responses to social problems. Throughout Europe, massive population growth had overtaken local churchyard provision. At this time, it was believed that bad smells – miasmas – caused disease. The gases emitted from decomposing bodies was regarded as being particularly poisonous.

Burial reformers across Europe wrote treaties to promote ‘extra-mural interment’, or burial away from populous neighbourhoods. These texts often followed the same pattern, including a section on the history of burial in Classical Greek and Roman times, a section outlining the science of burial reform and an extended description of local burial conditions.

The title page of Walker's book 'Gatherings from Graveyards'

Walker described central London burial grounds using lurid and deliberately shocking language which dwelt in detail on the stink and sight of recently buried and only half-decomposed bodies. Sensational stories recounted fatalities occurring in the vicinity of open graves, evidenced by eye-witness testimony.

Walker’s book was a bestseller, and many local newspapers carried editorial responses which then provoked reflection on local burial spaces. Gatherings from Graveyards was used to justify new cemetery provision in towns and cities throughout the UK. Some towns and cities produced their own version of Gatherings from Graveyards, which often include extended description of local burial grounds. These are two examples:

George Milner (1846) On Cemetery Burial: or Sepulture Ancient and Modern, Hull.

A.E. Hargrove (1847) The Baneful Custom of Interment in Towns and the Present State of York Graveyards, York.

Additional Reading

George A. Walker (1839) Gatherings from Graveyards; Particularly those of London: with a Concise History of the Modes of Interment among Different Nations, from the Earliest Periods. And a Details of Dangerous and Fatal Results Produced by the Unwise and Revolting Custom of Inhuming the Dead in the Midst of the Living, London: Longman and Company.

Gatherings from Graveyards is available to download from the Wellcome Collection.

 J. Rugg (2019) ‘Burial reform in England: a reappraisal’, Histoire, Médecine, Santé. 16 (Hiver): 79-95.

British History

Search the bibliography for further material on 19th and 20th century cemetery and crematorium history.