The name ‘dead house’ conjures up all kinds of ideas, doesn’t it? Is it a house occupied by the dead? Is it a rotten house that no one lives in anymore?
Some beliefs posit the idea that the spirit can’t move on until the body is finally at peace. Others explore the notion that the spirit can only move on once justice has been done.
But what happens to spirits when a body hasn’t been buried yet? Do they congregate wherever their bodies are kept? If so, this would have dire consequences for the dead house.
Let’s find out what the dead house is, and what strange folklore lurks in its shadowy corners.
What is the dead house?
I first discovered the dead house in The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts by Owen Davies (2007). In the late 18th century, Britain experienced a population boom. More people meant more deaths. Coroners needed somewhere to store bodies before an inquest. Because these bodies weren’t buried in the traditional way soon after death, their ghosts remained earthbound until burial could take place.
According to Davies, bookseller and memoir writer James Lackington reported a haunting in a London hospital. The authorities converted a ward in the lower part of the building into a dead house, “where a continual tapping on the windows was heard” (2007: 61). The nurses assumed the tapping must be the work of an unquiet spirit since the dead house was close by. After all, how else could they account for noises? The nurses refused to enter the haunted part of the building.
It inspired my short story, ‘The Dead-house’, which you can hear in audio form here.
Yet Jonathan Andrews points out that the dead house was not simply a storage space for the dead. Nor were they solely used for research. When located within asylums, they acted as a space for funeral services. If an asylum didn’t have a chapel, families might have their last moments with their dead in the dead house (2012).
The first dead house at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum was apparently rather small, “constructed with scant mind to the practicalities of pathological enquiry, and even less attention to patients’ and relatives’ sensibilities” (Andrews 2012). This demonstrates the lack of value attached to these human beings. Even in death, they weren’t afforded much dignity.
In the UK, the dead house fulfilled two functions. The name could refer to the building that often stood in or near a cemetery. They housed bodies prior to burial. Jesmond Old Cemetery had its ‘dead house’ beneath the chapels flanking its Jesmond Road entrance (Historic England 2020). Coffins were held in these vaults overnight before burial the following day. I’ve been in one of these so-called crypts, which is now used as storage by the offices above.
However, other dead houses were the forerunner to the hospital morgue or mortuary. It was their job to house the dead until the bodies could be claimed. The authorities kept bodies there until investigations could be carried out.
There was at least one dead house in Byker, in Newcastle upon Tyne. It stood beside the River Police Station at the mouth of the Ouseburn. The police used this dead house to lay out bodies fished from the river. The dead house was demolished in 1906 (Prison History 2020). The 1883 Kelly’s Directory also lists a Tyne Water Police Station at St Lawrence, which also had a dead house.
In A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof, Roger Clarke relates the story of a body fished from the Thames in Bermondsey in August 1886. After authorities took it to the dead-house near St James’ Church, rumours started “that the dead body was up and about and walking the churchyard at night” (2013: 171). Around 2000 people turned up every night to see this necromantic miracle.
A Royal Dead House
There’s even a dead house under Somerset House. Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, lived in an earlier building on the site, Denmark House. The house boasted a separate chapel and burial ground within its walls. After all, she and her staff were Roman Catholic in a Protestant nation. This gave them somewhere to pray in peace.
It also provided a final resting place for Henrietta Maria’s Catholic staff. Following the demolition of Denmark House, the builders re-used five of the gravestones in the walls of the new Somerset House. The area is known as the Deadhouse.
This space lies below the famous courtyard. I should stress there are no longer any bodies beneath the yard. But the gravestones certainly add an eerie ambience to an already strange location.
Can you find a dead house outside of the UK?
Dead houses are common elsewhere in the world, often in colder climates where the ground was too hard to dig graves during the winter. The bodies would be kept in the dead house until spring (Lacy 2018). In Ontario, there was even a fad for building dead houses in octagonal shapes.
A Parisian Morgue
Indeed, the Paris morgue near the Seine is arguably one of the more famous dead houses. Situated on Île de la Cité, it first opened in 1804. Many of the dead bodies that passed through its doors came from the streets or out of the Seine.
The mortuary staff even allowed the public in to help identify these anonymous bodies. Sadly, humans can be completely shameless, and so the morgue became the place to be seen. Between dawn and 6 pm, it was a hive of activity for tourists and locals alike (Cain 2015). At one point, the more ‘famous’ bodies drew up to 40,000 visitors a day.
One of its unfortunate occupants ended up being immortalised in a most unusual way. Known as L’Inconnue de la Seine, the woman had been fished out of the river. One of the assistants found her peaceful expression so entrancing that he took a cast of her face.
This in turn became a death mask that many Parisians displayed in their homes. According to legend, she even inspired the face of Resusci Anne, the first CPR dummy. Doubt stretches its long fingers across this particular legend. Those who work with dead bodies say the mask looks like it came from a living woman (Cain 2015). Still, the legend offers a slightly more hopeful end for an anonymous suicide victim put on display in the Paris morgue.
A Civil War Dead House
The University of Mississippi dead house predated the Civil War. It stood on the site of what is now Farley Hall. The previous building acted as a morgue to house war dead before burial at the Civil War Cemetery across the campus. Demolished in 1958, Farley Hall and its journalism school now stand on the site.
Christina Steube notes local anecdotes in which people claim to encounter ghostly presences in the area. Are they Civil War victims or long dead students? (2014)
But no matter where they are, the dead house seems to inspire fear.
There’s always a ‘but’…
I’ve looked online and the ‘evidence’ for haunted morgues or mortuaries seems anecdotal at best. People report weird noises, strange feelings of dread, or flickering shadows seen out of the corner of the eye. These come from people visiting historic spaces rather than working mortuaries. Some of the ‘haunted mortuaries’ I’ve found are essentially tourist attractions!
I can’t help thinking that there’s a more rational explanation. People who don’t work with the dead for a living can’t help feeling uneasy in these spaces. But those feelings of unease in a morgue have less to do with the presence of the dead and more to do with the low temperature and pre-conditioning. After all, pop culture tells us they’re creepy spaces.
So there is actually very little in the way of concrete folklore about the dead house. People fear the spaces because they’re unused to being in close confines with the dead. This applied to the very first mortuaries when hospital staff weren’t yet used to them. But there’s little lore due to the lack of real experiences.
The concept of a haunted dead house owes more to the revulsion provoked by corpses and the general eeriness of the place. Yet the way the Paris morgue became a tourist attraction also demonstrates our compulsive fascination with such spaces.
Perhaps the idea becomes more frightening than the place itself…
Do you think there’s any truth in the tales about the dead house? Let me know in the comments!
Andrews, Jonathan (2012), ‘Death and the dead-house in Victorian asylums: necroscopy versus mourning at the Royal Edinburgh Asylum, c. 1832–1901’, Hist Psychiatry, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4112573/.
Cain, Taryn (2015), ‘Paris Morgue and a public spectacle of death’, Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/W-RTBBEAAO5mfQ3M.
Clarke, Roger (2013), A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof, London: Penguin.
Davies, Owen (2007), The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts , London: Palgrave.
Historic England (2020), ‘Newcastle General Cemetery’, Historic England, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001181.
Lacy, Robyn (2018), ‘Winter Corpses: What to do with Dead Bodies in colonial Canada’, Spade and the Grave, https://spadeandthegrave.com/2018/02/18/winter-corpses-what-to-do-with-dead-bodies-in-colonial-canada/#more-2416.
Prison History (2020), ‘Tyne Water Police Station, Newcastle’, 19th Century Prison History, https://www.prisonhistory.org/lockup/tyne-water-police-station-newcastle/.
Steube, Christina (2014), ‘Haunted History: Some older areas of campus have a spooky past’, Ole Miss, https://news.olemiss.edu/haunted-history/.
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