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February 17, 2024 4 mins

As London grew throughout the 1800s, it became clear that there wasn't enough real estate for its deceased citizens. Learn how the London Necropolis Railway took the funerary show on the road in this classic episode of BrainStuff.

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Brainstuff, a production of iHeartRadio. Hey brain Stuff,
I'm Lauren Bogelbaum, and this is another classic episode of
the show. In this one, we delve into the slightly
morbid but interesting history of the London Necropolis Railway, a
train line that served the dead along with the living.

(00:24):
Hey Brainstuff, laurenvogelbaumb. Here, would you ride a train with
undead passengers? Or if not, what about a train with
actually dead passengers? From eighteen fifty four to nineteen forty one,
the London Necropolis Railway took a forty minute journey across
twenty three miles that's thirty seven kilometers, carrying both the
deceased and the living who mourned them to a cemetery.

(00:47):
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 seventy 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

(01:09):
one of the cemetery's to train stations. We spoke with
John Clark, author of the two thousand and six book
The Brookwood Necropolis Railway. He said both cemetery stations had
refreshment rooms, usually run by the wives of the station staff.
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

(01:30):
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
many of us keep the dead as far from daily
life as possible, but at the time it was a

(01:51):
popular one. During its peak, London's Necropolis Railway transported more
than two thousand dead bodies a year. The number of
live mourners at care reached into the tens of thousands.
Even so, riding in these 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

(02:11):
same train was a bit too practical. The Bishop of London,
when appearing before the Houses of Parliament a full twelve
years before the Necropolis Railway opened, considered it improper. Clark
says that the Bishop stated he would consider the hurry
and bustle connected with it as inconsistent with the solemnity
of a Christian funeral. Plus, there were the corporeal elements

(02:32):
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.

(02:55):
Separate cars were designated by class, but all were allowed
to ride, regardless of their station in life. The cemetery, meanwhile,
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.
I few could argue London's intown cemeteries were already chalk full.

(03:15):
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Londoners were being
buried at a rate of about fifty thousand 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 two greener pastures, like the
out of town Brookwood Cemetery, which encompassed about one thousand,
five hundred acres. By the nineteen twenties, motorized horses were

(03:37):
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
Brookwood Station, and in April nineteen forty one, during World
War II, the London terminus of the funeral train was
damaged in a German V two rocket bombing. Brookwood no
longer serves exclusively as a departure spot for the dead

(03:57):
and their mourners, but remnants of these stations are still
visible if you know where to Look, how's that for
living history. Today's episode is based on an article on
how stuffworks dot Com that has since been lost to time,
as these things sometimes are. Rain Stuff is production of

(04:19):
iHeartRadio in partnership with how stuffworks dot Com, and it's
produced by Tyler Klang. For four more podcasts from my
heart Radio, visit the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever
you listen to your favorite shows.

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Josh Clark

Josh Clark

Jonathan Strickland

Jonathan Strickland

Ben Bowlin

Ben Bowlin

Lauren Vogelbaum

Lauren Vogelbaum

Cristen Conger

Cristen Conger

Christian Sager

Christian Sager

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