The Cross Bones Gates: A Colorful Shrine to the Disgraced Dead

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June 24 2014 10:03 AM

The Cross Bones Gates: A Colorful Shrine to the Disgraced Dead

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A set of metal gates on Redcross Way in south London guards a dilapidated, overgrown lot. Tied to the railings of these gates are ribbons, garlands, laminated messages, and strings of beads. All pay tribute to the people who were laid to rest behind these gates: the outcast dead, denied Christian burials on account of their perceived degeneracy.

Records of Cross Bones Graveyard date back to the late 16th century, when John Stow's Survey of London referred to the site as a "single woman's churchyard." A "single woman" was code for "prostitute"—a more colorful euphemism was "Winchester goose," a slang term from the 12th century, when the Bishop of Winchester doled out licenses for prostitution.

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Over the centuries, Cross Bones became the final, unceremonious resting place for the societally undesirable. Though mostly devoted to women who engaged in prostitution, the graveyard accommodated paupers, criminals, migrants, and the homeless. An estimated 15,000 people were piled into the earth.

Cross Bones closed in 1853 when its grounds, overflowing with the dead, became a threat to public health. A warehouse was built on the site without regard for its subterranean inhabitants.

During excavations for the Jubilee tube line in the 1990s, the remains of 148 people were removed from the site. Tests on the bones, which dated to the 19th century, showed that many of the 148 had been afflicted with smallpox and tuberculosis.

Today, the Cross Bones gates are a shrine to the forgotten and mistreated dead, particularly women and sex workers. There is a vigils for the outcast happen on the 23rd of every month, during which people are invited to gather at the gates bearing offerings for the shrine. Messages tied to the gates pay tribute not just to those buried at Cross Bones, but to sex workers murdered in recent years. 


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