Now More Than Ever, London Needs a 'Death Pyramid'

Why the city should revive a 19th-century plan for an uptown necropolis, population 5 million.

The Metropolitan Sepulchre, 1829 (Guildhall Library)

"We have carved out a place for ourselves among the dead; the glittering pinnacles of commerce rise along the skyline, their foundations sunk in a charnel house; and the lost lie forgotten below us as, overhead, we persuade ourselves that we are immortal and carry on the business of life."

That's the cheery introduction to Necropolis: London and Its Dead, one of the all-time great reads about life's eternal bummer. There are great garden cemeteries in the West, Catharine Arnold writes—Green-Wood in New York, Père Lachaise in Paris—but perhaps none as fine as Highgate Cemetery in London. Designed by Stephen Geary and opened in 1839, Highgate framed the Victorian attitude toward death. Highgate inspired Arnold's book. And Highgate was home to a cool vampire.

The final respite for the dead might have been situated in a different spot in London had Thomas Wilson gotten his way. In the 1820s, the architect proposed to build a colossal pyramid called the Metropolitan Sepulchre. Sited for Primrose Hill, today a park area in North London, the necropolis was designed to alleviate the overpopulation of London's graveyards while adding a looming monument to mortality to the city's skyline.

Nah, said London. Which is too bad. London should really reconsider.

The Metropolitan Sepulchre, 1829 (Guildhall Library)

With the Metropolitan Sepulchre, Wilson envisioned a honeycomb of catacombs, each one capable of holding up to 24 coffins. The whole structure would have occupied a plot 18 acres in area; at more than 90 stories tall, it would have easily eclipsed St. Paul's Cathedral.

While it may have been inspired by the Great Pyramid at Giza, this necropolis was meant to be a true city of the dead, not just a palace for a pharaoh. The British pyramid would have served as the final resting grounds for some 5 million Londoners had the city gone with Wilson.

It's something of a surprise that tastes didn't swing in Wilson's direction. London in the 1820s was seized by a fever for Egyptiana. Giovanni Battista Belzoni, the adventurer and tomb-raider, practically invented the appreciation of Egyptian antiquities just a few years prior. Between 1816 and 1818, Belzoni removed from Thebes the 7-ton bust of Ramesses II and hauled it to London (where it is still on display today in the British Museum). Connoisseurship of Egyptian artifacts isn't all that the Great Balzoni inspired: Percy Shelley wrote his legendary poem "Ozymandias" based on the British Museum's acquisition. Wilson and other architects were moved to reach for the achievements of Egyptian antiquity.

Paris won out over Giza, alas. In 1832, London built George Frederick Carden's pioneering park cemetery, Kensal Green, modeled after Paris's Père Lachaise, followed by Highgate in 1839. The Victorian fascination with the garden cemetery is still with us today. As recently as 2013, Chislehurst, a suburb in South East London, opened Kenmal Park Cemetery, which follows the same model set forth by Kensal Green and Highgate (if not the aesthetic ambition).

The 30,000 plots of the Kenmal Park Cemetery will be filled in a few decades (per the Bromley Times). According to Arnold's book, the Pyramid General Cemetery Company estimated that the family vaults of Wilson's necropolis would fill up by some 40,000 bodies per year—a figure that London authorities greeted with some skepticism at the time.

Today, so-called vertical cemeteries are gaining some ground. Planners have proposed vertical mausoleum designs in Verona, Oslo, Tel Aviv, Mexico City, Mumbai, Paris, and beyond. Few have been completed, though. And Wilson's death pyramid would have been vastly taller than the largest vertical cemetery standing today, the Memorial Necrópole Ecumênica in Santos, Brazil.

London should be at the forefront of cities in regard to planning for the dead. After all, in London, there is barely room enough for the living. As Arnold's book explains, graveyards and cemeteries have guided the city's development. Not just the known ones, but the forgotten ones. It's the forgotten graveyards, in fact, that are such a worry.

A London Graveyard

Head-stones that unremembered years had stood
As sentinels to guard forgotten clay,
Now in a corner stand, in close array,
A sullen band, in mute, disbanded mood,
Grey veterans discharged from faithful trust,
Retired—till Time shall crumble them to dust.
Life has reclaimed the surface of the soil,
Three hundred years devoted to the dead,
That young things may have room to run and play.
The ancient coffined still the freehold keep
Of where they were, forever, buried deep
When they surrendered their dull, daily toil.
They will not stir to voices overhead:
The merry children will not break that sleep.

Edward Vandermere Fleming, 1946

Towering sepulchre, no children, plenty of room—problem solved. It's hard to misplace a death pyramid.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.