London's Skyscraper Sepulcher: The Corpse Pyramid That Almost Was

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Guildhall Library / Guildhall Library

It sounds like something straight out of a Rob Zombie movie: A decorative pyramid designed to hold corpses. Five million of them, to be exact. But unlike the events of a Zombie film, this pyramid was almost a reality.

In 1829, London officials were starting to worry about where they were going to put their dead. Real estate was at a premium as the population continued to climb. To solve the problem, architect Thomas Willson proposed a burial structure that would go up instead of out. At 94 stories high, the mausoleum would have dwarfed even St. Paul’s Cathedral, the tallest building in town at the time. Covering 18 acres in the Primrose Hill part of Regent’s Park, Willson’s massive pyramid was designed to hold five million bodies in honeycomb-like catacombs. What’s more, he said, the mausoleum would generate millions of pounds in profit when it was completely full.

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It didn’t happen for all of the reasons you imagine it didn’t. First of all, people didn’t want the beautiful London skyline to be dominated by a building full of rotting bodies. There were also doubts as to whether Primrose Hill could support the sheer weight of the brick structure, and city officials weren’t sold on Willson’s profit estimation.

Ultimately, officials decided to move forward with the garden-like Highgate Cemetery instead, and the pyramid idea was laid to rest—but it appears Willson was simply ahead of his time.

Faced with similar population and land problems, Israel recently started construction on 30 “high burial buildings” to house its dead. The city of Oslo, Norway, is considering skyscraper sepulchers; and Santos, Brazil, has been burying its citizens in a 32-story cemetery for decades.

Given that the world is rapidly running out of places to bury the deceased, it could be time to resurrect Willson's concept. For anyone still opposed, there's always composting.