In the summer of 1665, as the great plague ripped the heart out of the medieval city of London, people were still managing to bury the dead in coffins, correctly aligned in the traditional Christian east-west position wherever possible, according to the evidence of newly excavated plague graves.
The proof from a plague pit at the Bethlem burial ground, where the last of 4,000 skeletons are being excavated before a new Crossrail station is built beside Liverpool Street station, contradicts apparent witness accounts of bodies having been thrown naked into pits.
Jay Carver, the head archaeologist on the Crossrail site, said: “There are many examples of head-to-toe burials, apparently adopted due to real lack of space, but mostly head west, east feet.”
But unlike other medieval plague pits, the Crossrail bodies were coffined even when space didn’t allow an east-west alignment. Carver said: “It seems that even at this time of crisis, people were making considerable efforts to give their dead a decent Christian burial.”