Phiz (Hablot K. Browne)
4 1/8 x 4 1/8 inches on a page of 8 7/16 x 5 inches
Facing p. 123 of Dickens's Bleak House [for commentary and passage illustrated, see below]
Scanned image and text by George P. Landow.
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"He was put there," says Jo, holding to the bars and looking in.
"Where? Oh, what a scene of horror!"
"There!" says Jo, pointing. "Over yinder. Among them piles of bones, and close to that there kitchin winder! They put him wery nigh the top. They was obliged to stamp upon it to git it in. I could unkiver it for you with my broom if the gate was open. That's why they locks it, I s'pose," giving it a shake. "It's always locked. Look at the rat!" cries Jo, excited. "Hi! Look! There he goes! Ho! Into the ground!"
The servant shrinks into a corner, into a corner of that hideous archway, with its deadly stains contaminating her dress; and putting out her two hands and passionately telling him to keep away from her, for he is loathsome to her, so remains for some moments. Jo stands staring and is still staring when she recovers herself.
"Is this place of abomination consecrated ground?"
"I don't know nothink of consequential ground," says Jo, still staring.
"Is it blessed?"
"Which?" says Jo, in the last degree amazed.
"Is it blessed?"
"I'm blest if I know," says Jo, staring more than ever; "but I shouldn't think it warn't. Blest?" repeats Jo, something troubled in his mind. "It an't done it much good if it is. Blest? I should think it was t'othered myself. But I don't know nothink!" [Project Gutenberg etext (see bibliography below)]
Dickens's description of the graveyard and his characters reactions' to it almost certainly strike the twenty-first century reader as hysterically melodramatic, so we need a bit of Victorian social history to permit us to encounter this passage the way readers did in 1853 — a time, it turns out, when newspapers and parliamentary committees complained about the conditions of cemeteries, many of which were commercial enterprises. In his classic Death, Heaven and the Victorians, (1971) John Morley explains:
Overcrowded churchyards meant that recently interred corpses were constantly disturbed; it was this that made the system of interment a 'gross indecency to- wards the dead. In order to make room, corpses not a week buried were chopped up and burnt; choppers and saws for the purpose were kept in the graveyards. There was frequently a charnel house or 'bone house' in the churchyard. (Walker said, (! believe that bones, independently of their tegumentary appendages, may prove injurious to health'.) A grave-digger told the 1842 Select Committee [in Parliament] a hair-raising story of how the corpse of a woman, from which the head had been chopped, fell on him in the dark from the side of a grave he was digging. The grave-diggers stole lead from the coffins, and sold the bodies to surgeons; sextons were impelled to dispose of as many bodies as possible, since the more that were buried, the greater the profit.
Coffins were occasionally sold to undertakers for re-use, but far more commonly were sold as firewood. Walker told the Committee, "(. . . it is extensively burnt all over London; . . . I know a parish in which the grave-digger burnt it as common fuel. I asked him whether he felt any stench from it; he said, "Oh, the people say it smells now and then", but he was a drinking man . . . .' 
Contemporary medical beliefs about the nature of infectious disease provide yet another reason why the wretched condition of graveyards troubled so many people — and why Dickens mentions "deadly stains contaminating her dress" in the passage above: almost all physicians believed that miasma and atmospheric pollution provided the avenue by which cholera, typhus, typhoid, and other devastating diseases travelled from victim to victim. Foul odors, they thought, could kill despite John Snow's demonstration in 1854 that some of the most serious diseases, such as cholera, had a direct relation to water: after talking to local residents of one London neighborhood, he persuaded officials to lock on the pump that supplied water; the cholera declined. Pasteur's germ theory of disease did not take hold until the last third of the century, and Robert Koch did not isolate the anthrax micro-organism until 1876, the tuberculosis bacillus until 1882, and that for cholera until two years after that (Pasteur, who began experimenting with fermentation in the late 1850s, did not produce his hydrophobia vaccine until 1885. Dickens' readers, therefore, both found little if any exaggeration in his description of the cemetery and well understood his notion of the dangers of visiting foul ground that gave of vile odors.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. London: Bradbury & Evans. Bouverie Street, 1853.
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Project Gutenberg etext prepared by Donald Lainson, Toronto, Canada (firstname.lastname@example.org), with revision and corrections by Thomas Berger and Joseph E. Loewenstein, M.D. Seen 9 November 2007.
Morley, John. Death, Heaven and the Victorians,. London: Studio Vista, 1971; Pittsburg: Universit of Pittsburg Press, 1971.
Last modified 12 November 2007