The dead among us

I don’t know if there’s any city in North America that has its own catacombs, at least in the European sense. My impression is that our old urban graves tend to be dealt with as a rarity: something to be either quietly obliterated, whisked away to pathology departments, or turned into permanent memorials. But those measures don’t seem like the same sort of cultural coexistance with the dead in number as described in this book review. I find the idea of taking an escalator up through the former site of a plague-pit to be particularly exciting.

That is why the Great Plague of 1665 has been largely understood as a London phenomenon. The sites of old plague pits are now pointed out with understandable pride. Richard Barnett reveals that the escalator at Camden Town Underground station passes through a vast grave for plague victims, and that a “massive plague pit” is responsible for the low ceiling of the basement of Harvey Nichols. It would be fair to say that he takes a certain, rather morbid, pleasure in compiling this Baedeker of disease and suffering. But why not? This is London’s real heritage. Together with this volume are a glossary and six maps, so that the reader can make his or her way down the various roads to oblivion. If you wish to follow the course of tropical disease as it ate its way to the heart of the metropolis, you can do so; you can follow the route of the plague, or the life of an 18th-century medical student. All human life, and human death, is here.

from “Sick City: 2,000 Years of Life and Death in London,” by Richard Barnett, Times Online, 14 November 2008 :: via more than 95 theses

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