A View on Avoiding Mistakes

Cemeteries in the 21st century - avoiding the mistakes of the past by Ken Worpole

I attended two meetings of the Association of Significant Cemeteries in Europe (ASCE) in Genoa and Bologna, an organisation that is growing throughout Europe in leaps and bounds. Its success indicates a revival of academic and architectural and landscape interest in cemeteries across Europe where they are seen to embody regional historical and cultural traditions which are fast disappearing elsewhere.

There is no doubt that without the strong voluntary effort to raise public awareness and concern about British cemeteries that the situation would be even worse than it is today.

How did things get so bad? The lack of attention to the number and quality of cemeteries in the UK in the 20th century can be partly attributed to the growing popularity of cremation which now accounts for 72% of disposals. Some cremated remains are buried in churchyards and cemeteries, some are scattered in memorial gardens but a large proportion of people take cremated remains away for private disposal.

The high proportion of cremations combined with a legal proscriptive against the re-use of graves (which resulted in many Victorian cemeteries becoming full up and subsequently closed) leaves the traditional cemetery or burial ground in a seriously weakened position, especially in its role as a local landscape with identity and attachment.

The amount of green open space taken up by historic cemetery land varies in different parts of the country. In parts of London for example, the legacy of past burial practice is enormous. If you consider a borough like Newham, over 60% of open space is taken up by burial land, Kensington and Chelsea by 49%, the lack of maintenance can have a particularly debilitating and demoralising effect on local communities.

Yet the same London boroughs are today running out of burial space and in some cases have none left at all. This means that burials take place at cemeteries some distance from the communities in which the deceased lived, breaking the connection with the living and the dead. This only encourages more people to choose cremation once the local link is broken.

The current consultation around Department of Constitutional Affairs (Coroner’s Division) formerly Home Office document, Burial Law and Policy in the 21st Century may bring about a changed attitude to the re-use of graves in existing cemeteries generating revenue again. Although the issue remains controversial there are still other important discussions to be had about the status of cemeteries.

Since the article was written The Ministry of Justice has assumed responsibility for the Coroner’s Division

For example it has been common to manage and maintain cemeteries within the parks divisions of councils and whilst there are similarities there are important differences. It is often argued that Victorian cemeteries were part of the wider park family with many being designed and laid out by important parks designers. As well as functioning as burial sites, they were often regarded as places to visiting and promenading, even if it be of a more dignified and morally uplifting kind.

Yet there is the counter tradition to suggest that cemeteries are in cases very different to parks. For example Jewish cemeteries largely operate as closed places, literally and symbolically. Many are locked and opened only for burial services. The new Muslim Gardens of Peace at Hainult in Essex welcomes visitors but under strict guidelines. While some people find it acceptable turning ‘closed’ churchyards and cemeteries into other public amenities, many do not. They continue to feel that a burial ground will always be a sacred place of some kind even if they are agnostic or without any religious belief at all. Death changes the nature of everything that it touches.

Likewise some closed churchyards and cemeteries are acquiring a new life as a wild life haven but this role is being disputed by some who feel that their historic and cultural values will be displaced or destroyed on an over emphasis on natural wildlife habitat priorities.

In public funding terms, cemeteries pose problems of another kind. While the cemetery itself may be publicly owned and accessible, the individual plots and monuments remain in private hands so grants for improvement might be contested from the point of view that public money is being spent on private benefit. In my view the tide is turning back in favour of appreciating the place of the cemetery in our daily life and culture. Much of this is due by those involved in the Friends of Cemeteries Movement. For this and many other reasons, I think that those of us who visit, photograph and write about them are genuinely grateful.

Ken Worpole is the author of many reports and books on contemporary urban and environmental issues including Cemetery in the City (1997) and the recent Last Landscapes: the architecture of the cemetery in the west. It is available from Reaktion Books (020 7404 9930) at £22.