Catafalque burial

Anglican Chapel, colonnade, Kensal Green Cemetery, London

Anglican Chapel, colonnade, Kensal Green Cemetery, London

The Cemeteries & Sanitation:  the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness (June 18th-24th 2015) tour provides three opportunities – Brompton Cemetery, Highgate Cemetery and West Norwood Cemetery – to see Victorian catacombs.  Here, in lead-lined coffins, the Victorian dead lie awaiting the Second Coming.  A third site, Kensal Green Cemetery, also has a fine set of catacombs, though these are currently being restored.  Indeed, it is still possible to be buried in the catacombs at Kensal Green:  according to the Friends’ website [], “both private loculi and shelves or vaults for family groups” are still available.

A catafalque is the raised base on which a coffin rests before and during a funeral service.  In the Anglican Chapel at Kensal Green, the catafalque acts as a lift, lowering coffins into the catacombs below.  The original mechanism, installed in or soon after 1837, was based on the cider press, and proved difficult to operate with decorum:  the two sides had to be screwed at exactly the same speed or the catafalque tilted and jammed.

The engineering company of Bramah & Robinson provided an improved coffin-lift design for West Norwood Cemetery in 1839, using smooth and silent hydraulic power to give the deceased a dignified exit through the floor.  The proprietors of Kensal Green Cemetery were so impressed that they replaced their original lift with a Bramah & Robinson hydraulic lift in 1844 for £200, half the cost of the original.

Highgate Cemetery [] also used a hydraulic lift to lower coffins from the south chapel to a tunnel into the East Cemetery to save the cortège crossing the public road, Swains Lane.

The West Norwood coffin lift is unusable, but is beautifully illustrated at  The Kensal Green lift was restored to working order by the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery in 1997:

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2015 Cemeteries and Sewerage:  the Victorian pursuit of cleanliness tour, with text, photographs, maps, a chronology and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 including postage and packing.  To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

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