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For whom the bell tolls not

Andrew Lugger kicks off his new series on the glory and gore of our legal history

4 April 2011

Suicides were traditionally denied burial in a church cemetery as ‘self murder’ was contrary to the moral law. Instead, a crossroads was the place of final rest for such unfortunate people and a stake through the heart was said to prevent the lost soul from wandering.

It is believed that the entrance to Victoria bus station is the site of the last crossroads suicide burial in Britain. A change in the law came about in 1823 when the King’s carriage was held up by a morbid crowd watching the burial of Abel Griffiths, and after this Act of parliament was passed suicides were granted admission to graveyards. But with no ceremonies allowed, the bell did not toll and interment could only take place between the hours of 9pm and midnight.

The taking of one’s own life was a felony at common law, and, because the poor accused was beyond the reach of the long arm of the law, all worldly possessions would be forfeited. Where self-destruction failed, he or she would be charg...

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