Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Cross Bones Graveyard: Remembering the Outcast Dead

In Southwark, South London, a disused cemetery dating back to the 17th century has taken on new life and purpose. Known as Cross Bones, this is an unconsecrated burial ground associated with the churchyard of Saint Saviour's parish. It was used for the burial of prostitutes and later, for the burial of paupers. Today, the site has been recovered from overgrown waste ground, and the designs of developers. It is now used as a memorial shrine and a reminder of the hypocrisy and disrespectful treatment the residents received in life and in death.
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Passing by Crossbones Photo Credit - Ciara Leeming

Here is a brief history from Cross Bones-The Living Herstory:
Close to the junction with Union Street, you'll see a vacant plot of land, enclosed by London Underground boards on which someone has chalked a skull and crossbones and the words: "Touch For Love". The rusty iron gate is adorned with a bronze plaque, ivy, ribbons, flowers, feathers and other curious totems. This is Cross Bones, an unconsecrated graveyard going back to medieval times. The Tudor historian John Stow refers to it as a burial ground for 'single women' - a euphemism for the prostitutes who worked in Bankside's legalised brothels or 'stews'.
Such women were condemned to be buried in unhallowed ground. Yet many were actually licensed by the church. For some 500 years, the Bishop of Winchester exercised sole authority within Bankside's 'Liberty of The Clink', including the right to licence prostitutes under a Royal Ordinance dating back to 1161. These women became known as 'Winchester Geese'.
crossbones cemetery memorial funeral protest
Plaque on the Gate of Crossbones - Photo Credit - Ciara Leeming

The graveyard was finally closed in 1853, on the grounds that it was 'completely overcharged with dead' and that 'further burials' would be 'inconsistent with a due regard for the public health and public decency'. …[T]he graveyard slept peacefully and unmolested for the best part of a century. Then, in the 1990s, London Underground built an electricity sub-station to supply power for the Jubilee Line Extension. Prior to the work, Museum of London archaeologists conducted a partial excavation of the site, removing some 148 skeletons. By their own estimate, these represented: 'less than 1% of the total number of burials that were made at this site.'

cemetery memorial funeral protest crossbones

Here is an excerpt from the Museum of London regarding the Cross Bones Excavation:
Excavations carried out in 1992 on the site of Cross Bones Cemetery, recorded part of a post-medieval cemetery to the west of Redcross Way in Southwark. 148 inhumations were recorded and are thought to date to the last 50 years of use of the cemetery approximately from 1800 to 1853 when the cemetery was closed.
The Cross Bones burial ground served the poor of the parish of St. Saviour’s, Southwark, but the ground is thought to have originally been established at least as early as the 17th century, as a single women’s (prostitutes’) cemetery. By 1769, it had become a paupers cemetery and remained so until its closure in 1853.

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Again from the Cross Bones site:
The shrine at the Cross Bones Memorial Gates in Redcross Way dates back to the first Halloween of Cross Bones in 1998. As the Halloween of Cross Bones evolved as an annual event, a succession of home-made plaques regularly appeared on the wall around the gate. Each was eventually vandalised, or perhaps removed by the site-owners, to be replaced by a new plaque until, in 2005, Southwark’s ‘Cleaner Greener Safer’ fund paid for the official bronze plaque and the ivy planters which now adorn the gates. Meanwhile, the spontaneous shrine at the gates was continually renewed and transformed as a living artwork and memorial to the outcast dead. In 2004, the community self-help Green Angels rededicated the shrine, introducing new elements into the remembrance ceremonies performed there. This marked the beginning of monthly vigils at the site.

cemetery cross bones memorial

Local residents and the group 'Friends of Cross Bones' continue to resist development of the graveyard site that would displace once again, the outcasts who were compelled to be buried here in the first place. Their struggle continues with the aim of permanently protecting the shrine at the Memorial Gates and to dedicate part of the site as The Goose Garden memorial public park.

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Funeral service faces a crisis of relevance, and I am passionate about keeping the best traditions of service alive while adapting to the changing needs of families. Feel free to contact me with questions, or to share your thoughts on funeral service, ritual, and memorialization. dailyundertaker@gmail.com