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Necropolis: London and Its Dead Hardcover – 2 May 2006

4.1 out of 5 stars 49 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd; annotated edition edition (2 May 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743268334
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743268332
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.5 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 364,919 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


'Deeply pleasing . . . Entertainment of the most garish and exquisite kind . . . A Baedeker of the dead' -- Peter Ackroyd, The Times

'Grimly entertaining . . . Arnold’s book abounds in deliciously uncanny detail' -- Suzi Feay, Independent on Sunday

'Luminous and often touching details crowd these pages . . . Well-researched and elegantly written' -- Melanie McGrath, Sunday Telegraph

'Where Arnold's account really beguiles is in its eccentric social detail . . . Enthusiastic, good-humoured and constantly engaging' -- Sinclair McKay, Daily Telegraph

Piccadilly Line... had to be rerouted when the tunnelling equipment proved unable to drill through the dense throng of skeletons... -- Sunday Telegraph, 30 April, 2006

Where Arnold’s account really beguiles is in its eccentric social detail...enthusiastic, good-humoured and constantly engaging -- Daily Telegraph, May 6, 2006

deeply pleasing...providing entertainment of the most garish and exquisite kind -- Peter Ackroyd, The Times, April 29, 2006

From the Inside Flap

A society can be judged by the way it treats its dead, and this is especially true of London. Two thousand years of history may represent only a hundred generations, but in that time the way London has coped with death and burial has changed immeasurably.

From Roman burial rites to the horrors of the plague, from the founding of the great Victorian cemeteries to the development of cremation and the current approach of metropolitan society towards death and bereavement – including more recent trends to displays of collective grief and the cult of mourning, such as that surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales – NECROPOLIS: LONDON AND ITS DEAD offers a vivid historical narrative of this great city’s attitude to going the way of all flesh.

As layer upon layer of London soil reveals burials from pre-historic and medieval times, the city is revealed as one giant grave, filled with the remains of previous eras – pagan, Roman, medieval, Victorian. The Houses of Parliament sit on the edge of a former plague pit; St Paul’s is built over human remains; Underground tunnels were driven through forgotten catacombs, thick with bones.

This fascinating blend of archaeology, architecture and anecdote includes such phenomena as the rise of the undertaking trade and the pageantry of state funerals; public executions and bodysnatching; and the men and women who featured in this dark aspect of London life, from the mysterious Spitalfields woman to Samuel Pepys, from tragic Anne Boleyn to Victoria, the widow of Windsor.

Ghoulishly entertaining and full of fascinating nuggets of information, NECROPOLIS leaves no headstone unturned in its exploration of our changing attitudes to the deceased among us. Both anecdotal history and cultural commentary, NECROPOLIS will take its place alongside classics of the city such as Peter Ackroyd’s LONDON.

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
London and its dead covers the period from Roman times to date, with emphasis on the periods of the Black Death, the Victorian era and the Second World War. Very well written, and the macabra nature of the subject matter is treated sensitively. It is informative and amusing by turn, detailing some of the grisly aspects of death, various cemetery related scandals and lots of good hard factual information. If you have an interest in cemeteries or in London as a city this is a must read book. My only quibble is that there were very few illustrations, and those chosen were not good. Other than that, it's excellent!
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Format: Paperback
I did some courses at University on death and mourning rituals and they were fascinating. When I lived in London I also used to spend a fair amount of time visiting Highgate cemetery, also fascinating. Coming across this book seemed like a blessing, dealing with and adding knowledge to areas of interest.

Sadly, I think I know too much. The issue with this book is that it is 'death lite'. I think that it's great as an introduction to the subject, but if you already know things, it's not going to take you any further forward. There is already an excellent paperback book available on underground London the name of which escapes me, but which covers much of the ground Arnold goes over here. The section on Highgate is no more than you would get if you went on one of the excellent tours held by The Friends of Highgate Cemetery. I was most disappointed here, as I was really hoping for something new, rather than the highlights.

I also think the section on Diana is gratuitious and this is going to sound ironic for a book about death, but rather tasteless. Again, nothing you wouldn't know if you had followed the story with any interest at the time, and it strikes me as something the marketing department thought might be good to sell books rather than something Arnold herself had more than a passing interest in.

The bones, ha ha, are here. It just needs fleshing out. This would have been a much more satisfactory book if it had been better researched and about twice as long. As it is, it's just a coffee table book or something you can chat about to Londoners at a dinner party other than the housing market.
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Format: Hardcover
Necropolis: London and its Dead is a fascinating study of London's status as centuries-old burial ground, and how the city's relationship to death and its dead has played a pivotal role in its history. It begins with the Neolithic tribal settlements in the area which became the capital, moving onto Roman ritual and burial and then,in the post-Pagan centuries, the vast differences in the treatment of death via Christian belief. Medieval death, plague and the notion of ars moriendi (the art of dying well) are explored, as is the Great Fire of 1665, the population boom of the following two centuries. The crystalisation of Victorian attitudes to grief and mourning naturally take up a great deal of the book, as do the completions of the vast (then) out-of-town cemeteries such as Kensall Green and of course Highgate, after the massive scandals of the Resurrection-Men, mass burials, cholera and the public health horrors of the mid-1800s. Moving on from the nineteenth century, Arnold argues that the intricate and established cult of grief long-held in Victorian London necessarily had to alter after the mass deaths of WWI made intimate mourning and, indeed, graveside reveries, impossible and contrived in the face of rapidly advancing, agnostic modernity.

The amount of material covered in this slim paperback edition is quite staggering, but Arnold makes easy work of the vast subject matter and manages to convey a neat narrative progression throughout. She has an obvious relish for the macabre, but never falls into either of the standard-issue pitfalls when dealing with the subject of death: she neither becomes overly hammy and lighthearted, nor does she descend into the sober depths of elegy. At all times she is even-handed, engaging, critical and honest.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a pleasant enough read - though it does ramble and jump about a bit sometimes, but my concern is factual accuracy. I found from time to time I was reading something I knew about - and what I was reading was not factually accurate. So what of the rest of the book - are they real facts, or are they just made up too?

"Fawkes's confederates gathered on Highgate Hill to witness [the blowing up of Parliament]". Really? Can we have a source please? Because many people like to think it was Parliament Hill, and there is scant evidence for either.

"Ring o' ring o' roses ... refers to the Great Plague" Not very likely - do some research. The rhyme has virtually nothing in common with the actual symptoms and this "explanation" of the supposed origin doesn't appear anywhere until well into the 20th century.

"In fact, the tunnel [of the Piccadilly line] curves between Knightsbridge and South Kensington stations because it was impossible to drill [sic] through the mass of skeletal remains buried in Hyde Park" This "fact" appears in the introduction. Later on in the book the location moves from Hyde Park to "where Brompton Road and Kensington Road meet" (they don't meet according to all my street atlases) and the "fact" is now demoted to "This is said to account for the curving nature of the track"

Yet this is not something mentioned in histories of the Underground, and the actual fact that the curvature of the line can be seen to be following the line of the streets as much as possible is not mentioned (all the early tube railways were built so far as was possible under the roads as this was cheaper than paying property owners to tunnel under their premises and sharp bends occur elsewhere for this reason.
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