Ridiculous History: London Had a Train for the Dead


The Great Seal of the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company contains a Latin phrase meaning "Rest for the dead, health for the living." Steven Weinberg/Getty Images/Wikimedia Commons
The Great Seal of the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company contains a Latin phrase meaning "Rest for the dead, health for the living." Steven Weinberg/Getty Images/Wikimedia Commons

Would you ride a train with undead passengers? Ahem, sorry, we mean actually dead passengers.

From 1854 to 1941, the London Necropolis Railway took a 40-minute, 23-mile (37-kilometer) journey, carrying both the deceased and the living who mourned them to the cemetery. After departing a special station near Waterloo built specifically for the line and its passengers, the train rocked its way across the serene countryside on a route selected for its comforting views. Once arriving at the Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey — at the time, the world's largest cemetery, and built in partnership with the railroad — funeral-goers would lay their dearly departed to rest and then have drinks and snacks at one of the cemetery's two train stations.

"Both cemetery stations had refreshment rooms, usually run by the wives of station staff," says John Clarke, author of the 2006 book "The Brookwood Necropolis Railway." "The cakes and sandwiches served would probably have been homemade. And it would have been customary to eat this lunch with a cup of tea at the station, before returning to London. The refreshment rooms were fully licensed, so guests could have alcoholic drinks as an alternative to tea or coffee."

After this brief repast, the guests then boarded the train and returned to London, the train's passenger list a bit lighter than before.

The idea may seem odd today, when we keep the dead as far from daily life as possible, but at the time it was a popular one. During its peak, London's Necropolis Railway transported more than 2,000 dead bodies a year. The number of live mourners it carried reached into the tens of thousands.

Mourners at the Necropolis Company's station Westminster Bridge Road in London, circa 1900. Image from George R. Sims' 1903 book "Living London, Vol. III."
Mourners at the Necropolis Company's station Westminster Bridge Road in London, circa 1900. Image from George R. Sims' 1903 book "Living London, Vol. III."
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Even so, riding in the same train as corpses took some getting used to. Londoners initially wondered whether loading up the mourners and the deceased and transporting them on the same train was a bit too practical. The bishop of London, when appearing before the Houses of Parliament a full 12 years before the Necropolis Railway opened, considered it improper, Clarke says. The bishop stated that he would "consider the hurry and bustle connected with it as inconsistent with the solemnity of a Christian funeral," says Clarke, and the bishop opposed the plans put forth by the London Necropolis Company.

Plus, there were the corporeal elements with which to contend, such as the odors and potential disease transmission of the bodies. Social mores were tested, too. Could the rich really ride side by side with the poor to bury their dead? And the concern wasn't limited only to people of different social classes. There could be different religions aboard, each requiring its own traditions.

The solution, at least aboard the Necropolis Railway, was elegant in its simplicity. Separate cars were designated by class, but all were allowed to ride regardless of their station in life. The cemetery, however, allowed the rich and poor to be buried side by side, but sectioned separate areas for various religions. It was a workable solution for the time, and one driven by a necessity few could argue: London's intown cemeteries were already chock full.

By the middle of the 19th century, Londoners were being buried at a rate of 50,000 a year. Previously buried bodies were sometimes removed and cremated to make room for new ones until Parliament began closing admission at city cemeteries, and shipping bodies to greener pastures like the out-of-town Brookwood Cemetery, which encompassed about 1,500 acres.

By the 1920s, motorized hearses were the vehicle of choice for moving the dead, and many Londoners had access to either automobiles or one of the "trains of the living" that also made a stop at the Brookwood station. And in April 1941 during World War II, the London terminus of the funeral train was damaged in a German V-2 rocket bombing. Brookwood no longer serves exclusively as a departure spot for the dead and their mourners, but remnants of these stations are still visible if you know where to look. How's that for living history?

London's Necropolis Station following a devastating 1941 bombing attack by long-range German V-2 rockets during World War II.
London's Necropolis Station following a devastating 1941 bombing attack by long-range German V-2 rockets during World War II.
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