Visiting the Outcast Dead at London’s Cross Bones Graveyard

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South of the Thames, in the Southwark borough of London there lies a peculiar little backstreet cemetery. It’s an unassuming site – just a small gated garden – but the Cross Bones Graveyard is in fact one of the city’s oldest burial sites. Established in the 16th century, somewhere in the region of 15,000 people were buried here before its closure in 1853… and this graveyard was unique, in that it catered to the people whom no other burial ground would take.

In 16th century London, these suburbs – outside the City jurisdiction – were a hotbed of vice; gambling, dog fights and prostitution. Disease was rife, crime flourished, and sex workers faced innumerable threats to their safety. Deemed unworthy of burial in Christian soil, however, this community’s deceased were instead interred in an unconsecrated patch of earth south of the river: the Cross Bones Graveyard.

In modern times the graveyard has become a memorial of sorts. Visitors hang tributes on the fence – ribbons, dolls, teddy bears and photographs. Memorials to contemporary victims of the sex trade are pinned in memory on the gates so that this graveyard, once a hidden place where outcasts disappeared, has become a monument for all London’s hidden victims, from medieval times through to the present day.

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