The Georgians were obsessed with clean air, which was not surprising as there was so little of it about.
There were bad smells- ‘effluvium’- everywhere. The most offensive were decomposing animals on the street, in the rubbish heaps, or at the slaughterhouse. These hazards to health were well known, and did not only extend to animals; the other health hazard was the decomposition of human remains buried a few feet into the ground in the graveyards of parish churches that could not cope with the explosion of birth in the late eighteenth century, and the concommitment blooming of death a generation later.
This problem was known, but not solved, in the Georgian period. It was the Victorian social reformers that dealt with the problem of the overstuffed graveyard, but the Georgians did go as far as to worry about it a little.
Experts gave out warnings. Joseph Taylor’s The Danger of Premature Interment (1816) condemned the use of overfull graveyards; but reserved special scorn for the burial of corpses indoors in large, damp, unventilated buildings, where windows were never opened and fires were never lit, that were occupied very rarely during the week, but often full when it was in use – that is, a church. There was nothing sacred about this, he said. No other civilisation – ancient Rome or Greece, modern Jewish or Islamic, did such a dangerous thing. Only the most conscientious cleric would meet the corpse at the lych-gate if it had died of fever. The only thing that prevented a disease disaster was that the church and cathedral were not heated.
Dr Buchan in his widely read Domestic Medicine condemned large, crowded funerals. Infections, especially fevers, did not die with the patient. If you attended the funeral of somebody who had been lain on a bier from a week in a crowded house, there was a chance that you would die of the same thing they did. The poor and desperate would often be in danger from the recycling of the dead person’s clothes, so it was thought.
The rich and famous had to wait even longer to go to their grave. In 1805, the Duke of Gloucester has been lying in his lead-lined coffin for five days; delayed by the desire for intricate decoration of the outer one. As he was about to be lifted in, the effluvia was obvious, caused by the smallest of cracks in the lead. The ‘two-coffin’ solution for the rich was designed to solve this problem of offensive decomposition during the long drawn-out ceremonies, and mostly did; however, in the average parish graveyard, it was common for gravediggers to smash through earlier burials, or for the sexton to check the ground beforehand to make sure it was empty. Graveyards were full; but the desire to treat the consequences as a social rather than a religious problem were not present.
Some Georgians were defending unhealthy burial practice until the end. William Reader defending burials in church in 1830, pointed out that a building with secure foundations and large ventilated upper stories could deal with the inconvenience. Lead Coffins for all would solve the problem, he thought, although metal-lined coffins actually slowed down decomposition. The fact that Jews and Muslims did something different was turned on its head- perhaps they were wrong, like they were on other things?This was Reader’s conclusion;
But the custom renders our solemn assemblies more venerable and awful for when we walk over the dust of our friends or kneel upon the ashes of our relations this …must strike a lively impression of our own mortality and what consideration can he more effectual to make us serious and attentive to our religious duties
Your ancestral dead were performing one last function for you, according to Reader, and perhaps he had a point about the degree of danger. The mould on the walls of an unheated old church probably caused more death and suffering than the bodies buried beneath.
It was horrible, but the threat to health of buried corpses was overestimated. Noxious effusions from the lungs of the living where a much bigger problem, and in many parts of newly industrialising Britain, a row of slums smelly worse than a cemetery. There were occasional horror stories in the newspapers. Sextons were being poisoned when the tapped a vault to release noxious gases, which had to be done in the first months after death to avoid explosions. Cleaners who had found a decomposing body in the bottom of a well and had died breathing in their effluvia; body snatchers who had been directed to the wrong grave and opened up the wrong one; deaths in households were a murdered body had been hidden or a funeral that took too long to organise.
Nothing serious was done about the problem until the 1840s. The Georgians did not have the benefit of the germ theory of disease, and relied in the belief that bad air in itself caused disease. When improvements were made in public health, it was the smell that motivated reformers- ‘All smell is disease’ said Edwin Chadwick, and introduced effective reforms on the basis of a wrong analysis. It was hard to a prove scientifically that ineffective burials caused anything more than inconvenience, and some scientists disagreed with Chadwick; some suggested that liquefying corpses could pollute water courses, but the evidence was not conclusive but was believed. You could not see germs with your eye, but your nose could smell decay, which was fortuitous.
In 1823, the Enon Chapel (above) was built near the Strand which consisted of a place of worship/ social space above, and palace of burial below, separated by now more than a floorboard. The problem of the Enon Chapel was not solved until the 1840s; for the previous twenty years, large numbers of cheap unregulated burials meant that at least 12,000 corpses were crammed in. Customers who used it as dance hall could taste something nasty on their sandwiches and worshippers took to ‘praising the Lord with a handkerchief pressed to their nostrils’*
*Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight against Filth by Lee Jackson
Please consider my two books on the Georgian and Victorian Era
The Dark Days of Georgian Britain– a political and social history of the Regency. More details here
Passengers – a social history of Britain 1780-1840 told through travel, transport, roads and hospitality. More details here
Radical Victorians includes a chapter on cremation, and deals with eighteen other advanced thinkers of the Victorian era. More details here