This wide-open space of land in the heart of the city drew the living just as it drew the dead. Because it was consecrated ground, violence was prohibited, and by the eleventh century, merchants in Brittany were setting up shop in graveyards to avoid being robbed. As an added bonus, transactions conducted within this sacred space were tax free, since the municipal government had no jurisdiction there. In Catalonia, fugitives found safe refuge in the church but were unable to leave without facing arrest, so they set up makeshift living quarters on the permanent resting ground of their ancestors, creating a temporary microcity in the space of the protected graveyard.
The problem with this new urban layout, as always, was space. A Roman cemetery could stretch indefinitely into the wilderness, but an intramural churchyard had a limited area and an ever-growing list of residents. By the late medieval period, churches were regularly recycling cemetery space, removing bones to specially designated storerooms, the charnel houses. In England one could buy secondhand furniture from scavenged remains of coffins, appropriately called “coffin furniture.”
Cities with extensive non-Christian populations developed religious laws that alleviated, or at least diverted, the problem of land use. In Indian cities, some of the most populous in the world, Hindu practice has long mandated cremation—instead of cemeteries, rows of pyres line rivers, the Nigambodh Ghat in New Dehli burning dozens of corpses a day. The Ganges, which collects these ashes, acts as a river necropolis, one larger than any made by human hands. Jewish law prohibits the removal of bodies, so when space ran out in the block-long graveyard of the Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague, layers were added—twelve in all—to provide space for the estimated 100,000 inhabitants. Because the tombstones also had to remain intact, each new layer required uprooting the tombstones and replanting them on the new soil, so that the graveyard is now crammed with twelve thousand visible tombstones only inches apart, jutting out at all angles.
Overcrowding plagued most modern cities, but nowhere was this situation worse than in nineteenth-century Paris. By the eighteenth century, the city’s charnel houses had long since run out of space from constant retrenching—at one church, bones were stored above its rafters and arches, nearly to the point of bursting. The churches that stacked the dead on top of one another hardly fared better: in 1763 a report called attention to Parisian cemeteries whose ground was higher than the surrounding buildings. Heavy rains, the report noted, could lead to dangerous and noisome runoff.
The importance of a sacred burial had been so thoroughly corrupted in overcrowded cities by the increasing pressures of urbanization that it led to an impossible situation for public health. The idea of the poisonous miasma—“bad air,” or pollution from dead bodies that could transmit disease—had been around since ancient Greece, but now it took on a new urgency. In 1738 Voltaire argued that the “odious and ridiculous custom of paving the churches with dead bodies every year occasions at Paris epidemical disease, and all the deceased contribute more or less to infect their country.” Another critic suggested that the incense burned during church services was “more necessary to dissipate the foul odors of the continuous putrefaction taking place under our feet than for the holy service to which it is consecrated.” And then in August of 1744, a story from Montpellier shocked the nation: when a vault was opened to receive a new body, poisonous gasses erupted, knocking the priest unconscious and killing three mourners. In Voltaire’s words, the dead had declared war on the living.
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