The Pyramid Cemetery: A Historical Anecdote with the Resonance of a Parable

This is another item that I am re-posting from Futility Closet ( It is re-posted with the permission of Greg Ross, who maintains the site. You can have daily updates from the site delivered to your e-mail each morning.


Pyramid Cemetery

In 1830, architect Thomas Willson proposed housing London’s dead in a gigantic pyramid, “a metropolitan cemetery on a scale commensurate with the necessities of the largest city in the world, embracing prospectively the demands of centuries, sufficiently capacious to receive 5,000,000 of the dead, where they may repose in perfect security, without interfering with the comfort, the health, the business, the property, or the pursuits of the living.”

Willson’s necropolis would have covered 18 acres but would consolidate graves that would require 50 times that space in a conventional graveyard. With a base the size of Russell Square and a height greater than St. Paul’s, its granite-faced bulk would surpass the great pyramid of Giza. Through an Egyptian portal visitors would enter a surrounding enclosure decorated with statuary, cenotaphs, and monuments, as well as a chapel, a register office, and dwellings for the keeper, the clerk, the sexton, and the superintendent. They could ascend any side of the pyramid by a vast flight of stairs, at the top reaching an obelisk crowned with an observatory.

“This grand mausoleum,” Willson announced, “will go far towards completing the glory of London. It will rise in majesty over its splendid fanes and lofty towers,–teaching the living to die, and the dying to live for ever.” The cost he estimated at £2.5 million, but with 30,000 interments per year at £5 each, the pyramid would bring in £150,000 per year, saving £12.5 million over the course of a century in a project whose necessity, sadly, was certain to endure.

“However, the pyramid cemetery, instead of rearing its gloomy mountain-side into the clouds, and casting the shadow of death over every part of London in succession in the course of the day, exists only upon paper,” runs a contemporary report. “The dividends were too remote, and joint-stock people would not wait one hundred years for one hundred per cent.”


This historical anecdote seems to me to provide a parable for the short-sightedness that drives most of our public policy making today.

Many on the Far-Right claim to be concerned about the impact of our current debt on future generations. Because most of the projected debt and a larger and larger proportion of the projected interest on the debt are connected to “entitlement” programs, they claim that we need to “reform” those programs in order to “preserve” them. But the “reforms” that they are proposing are so radical that they will, in effect, eliminate most of the economic safety net that the programs now provide for seniors. Indeed, because the Far Right has been vehemently opposed to those programs since their conception, the facile duplicity in the proposed “reforms” is very evident.

That the Far Right has created a sense of crisis to serve a radical political agenda is demonstrated in their refusal to even consider relatively small changes—such as removing the income caps on social security and Medicare deductions—that would make those programs solvent beyond the lifespan of anyone alive today.

In the 1950s, President Eisenhower, a Republican of a very different mindset, invested heavily in vast construction projects that have been responsible for much of the economic growth in the U.S. over the subsequent half-century. By far the biggest of those projects was the creation of the interstate highway system. But the vastness of that project has overshadowed in our historical memory other projects that, in other periods, would have stood apart as monumental—for instance, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Looking to the future should mean much more than simply using projections as a scare tactic to support one’s current ideological positions.

Looking to the future should mean having a grand vision of what the nation is and will still become. For instance, Americans built the Empire State Building and the Hoover Dam in the depths of the Great Depression.

In striking contrast, our Congress has been rendered completely ineffectual by the obdurate ideological stances taken by a radical minority of its members. Paradoxically and ironically, those members have sought government positions specifically in order to reduce the influence of government. As a consequence, the multitude of things that the government does and might do for the “greater good” must, in their view, be sacrificed to the cause of eliminating the possibility of government waste and overreach.

This is the equivalent of bulldozing your home because some of the appliances don’t work or because some of the rooms are painted in very unappealing colors.


My previous re-posts from Futility Closet have included:

“But Should It Count toward Promotion and Tenure”:

“Another Item of Ironic Scholarship from Futility Closet”:

“Odd Library Subject Headings”:

“Herein Lies Another Route to Madness”:

“How-To Books That Make One Wonder Why”:

“Higher Ed’s Version of the Great Imposter”:

“ A Significant Portion of Someone’s Life Was Devoted to Writing Each of These Books”:

“Making Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow a Little Less Mundane”:

“Parsing the Paradoxical Nature of Politics”:

6 thoughts on “The Pyramid Cemetery: A Historical Anecdote with the Resonance of a Parable

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