City of the Dead

29 Feb

The evocative word necropolis is of Greek origin and literally means ‘city of the dead’, of which arguably the most famous is Scotland’s Glasgow Necropolis – a Victorian graveyard situated on a low but very prominent hill to the east of St. Mungo’s Cathedral. Fifty thousand souls have been buried there and not only is it a Scottish national landmark, it may also be the largest Masonic site in Europe. The graveyard was established by the Merchants’ House of Glasgow, an organization of powerful businessmen looking after the town’s interests. According to the theory, most of these men were Masons, and they chocked the site full of symbols, one of which (and perhaps the one that shows up the most frequently) is the Royal Arch, the emblem of the fourth degree of Freemasonry. It was the Necropolis that once prompted one of Glasgow’s favourite sons, the comedian Billy Connolly, to say ‘Glasgow’s a bit like Nashville, Tennessee: it doesn’t care much for the living, but it really looks after the dead’.

It was following the creation of the world-famous Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris that a wave of pressure began for cemeteries in Britain, which  required a change in the law to allow burial for profit. The planning of the graveyard was formally started by the Merchants’ House of Glasgow in 1831, in anticipation of a change in the law. The Cemeteries Act was passed in 1832 and the floodgates opened, with Glasgow Necropolis officially opening its doors (so to speak) in 1833. The main entrance is approached by a bridge designed by David Hamilton, which became known as the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ because it was part of the route of funeral processions (the name is an allusion to the Bridge of Sighs in Venice). The cemetery, as with most early Victorian cemeteries, is laid out as an informal park, lacking the formal grid layouts of later cemeteries. This layout is further enhanced by the complex topography. The cemetery’s paths meander uphill towards the summit, where many of the larger monuments stand, clustered around the John Knox Monument. This is where it gets interesting.

There is a theory that the Merchants’ House of Glasgow designed the layout of the Necropolis to reflect the ‘Masonic Journey’, a sort of path to enlightenment. The entrance to the Necropolis is on the west side, symbolic of darkness (where the sun sets), and a path leads to the east (where the sun rises), symbolizing the light. All the while the person on the journey passes all of those pillars, archways and other various Masonic symbols on the way to ‘enlightenment’. It is the prevalence of the ‘Royal Arch’ symbol in the graveyard which in particular gives fuel to the fires of conspiracy theorists everywhere. Sometimes called the ‘Triple Tau’, as it literally looks like three letter ‘T’s’ joined together, the Royal Arch is emblematic of the highest degree of Freemasonry. A fraternal organisation that arose from obscure origins in the late 16th to early 17th century, the Masons formed Lodges and met clandestinely, keeping their purposes, activities and membership a closely guarded secret. Often called a secret society, Masons themselves argue that it is more correct to say that they are an esoteric society, in that certain aspects are private. One of the few things which is widely known about the Masons is that they believed in a supreme being. As such, two of the principal symbolic tools always found in Masonic Lodges – and which are depicted in various forms throughout Glasgow’s Necropolis – are the square and the compass. These tools are explained as lessons in conduct: Masons should ‘square their actions by the square of virtue’ and to learn to ‘circumscribe their desires and keep their passions within due bounds toward all mankind’.

Which is all very well, but the question that may very well occur to you is – why bother secretly encoding all these symbols into a graveyard in Glasgow? Well, the Necropolis was built at a time when Mason hating was in vogue (especially with Christian denominations, which a majority of the Scottish population would have belonged to), so it’s no surprise that all of this was kept hush-hush. No self-respecting member of Glaswegian society would have wanted to rot in a burial ground his church considered heretical. Freemasonry mainly attracted criticism from theocratic states and organised religions for supposed competition with religion, or supposed heterodoxy within the fraternity itself, and has long been the target of conspiracy theories, which see it as an occult and evil power. Freemasonry also has a policy of not responding to its critics, which has only further stoked the fires of its opponents. What Freemasonry’s ultimate aims are, no one outside the order really knows, although speculating about this has occupied no end of pulp fiction authors, tabloid hacks and said conspiracy theorists. Equally, the actual meaning of the symbols all over the Glasgow Necropolis also remains just as much of a mystery, although it is a stunning, moving and eerie place to visit regardless.

5 Responses to “City of the Dead”

  1. Patrick February 29, 2012 at 7:38 am #

    While reading, I wondered if one of these graveyards was the one that inspired the famous scene in The Sound of Music. I looked it up and I guess that is St Peters in Salzburg. Do you know much about that?

    • anilbalan February 29, 2012 at 6:25 pm #

      Thanks, I don’t unfortunately but it sounds really interesting 🙂

  2. Morgan Mussell February 29, 2012 at 3:12 pm #

    Fascinating history I knew nothing about. Thanks

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