The word cemetery comes from Greek, meaning “sleeping place.” But the history they contain should not be allowed to rest. It should be repected and restored, just like the cemeteries themselves.
The public cemetery was a Victorian invention. Previously under common law, every parishioner and inhabitant of a parish had a right to be buried in their parish churchyard or burial ground. Naturally there were some exceptions.
Following the Act of 1823, the practice of burying suicides in some public highway with a stake driven through them was ended. They were buried as normal but only between the hours of 9 p.m. and midnight, and without rites of the Church. The compulsory dissection of murderers’ bodies was not abolished until 1832, and hanging in chains still happened until 1834.
Burial Grounds (rather than parish churchyards) were started by non-conformists in the 17th century; many more were established over the next hundred years. The first public cemetery in London was established in 1827 in Kensal Green. Soon they were run as commercial ventures and after legislation in the 1850s municipal cemeteries began to replace urban churchyards.
These had posed a severe health risk to those working or living nearby. Thousands had been buried in shallow pits beneath the floorboards of chapels and schools which meant that people ran the risk of serious disease and were also forced to endure an awful stench. The Burial Act of 1852 (repealed in 1972) required the General Board of Health to establish cemeteries to deal with the problem.
The idea of landscaped public cemeteries came from Europe, especially Italy, France and Sweden. The elegant avenues of the landscaped cemetery at Pere-Lachaise in Paris were widely admired.
A book by J.C. Loundon, On the Laying Out, Planting, and Managing of Cemeteries (1843) was widely influential and led to improvements in the design of churchyards, with the construction of lych-gates and the planting of specimen trees. Paths were laid and they became extremely popular as ordered places of peace and tranquility within busy cities. They brought ordinary people in direct contact with the great and the good and the notorious, where they could reflect upon death as the common human destination, the great leveller. Away from the confusion of the city, in the face of death and mortality, the urban cemetery became a place for contemplation.
The great Victorian cemeteries remain such a valuable window on the past. They provide a picture of another age. Plants trees and wildlife survive undisturbed amongst the tangle of undergrowth that slowly embraces the headstones. There are many notable examples.
The General Cemetery in Sheffield is a Conservation Area and includes monuments and buildings listed as Grade II structures. Like all cemeteries it contains fascinating graves – the sad grave of a baby found wrapped in newspaper in a drain in 1869, the grave of George Bassett who manufactured the liquorice sweets that were later to become Liquorice Allsorts. Highgate Cemetery in North London is perhaps the most famous of cemeteries. It has a Grade I Listed chapel and is a permanent home to Karl Marx, Christina Rossetti, Douglas Adams and Michael Faraday.
Groups work across the country for their preservation. They are truly irreplaceable parts of our history. In Cardiff the Friends of Cathays Cemetery respect and cherish their important space with a very informative Heritage trail which leads you to the notable graves. It provides a planned route for the re-creation of those constitutional walks for Victorians. They have an excellent guide book too, published to recognize the cemetery’s 150th anniversary in 2009. Contact Michael O’Callaghan at firstname.lastname@example.org and he can arrange one for you.
Sadly as they get older, the problems our cemeteries face are growing and as the memorials degrade, then a part of our heritage is lost. Rain slowly erodes the stone, causing salt movement within a headstone which eventually leads to cracking and fracture. Rising damp has a similar effect and the plant life that gives cemeteries such a rich ecology can also be destructive. Ivy can grow into a crack and over time continued growth can widen the gap until it separates. The restorative work that voluntary organisations carry out – and the awareness raising they do – is vital. People went to a great deal of trouble and expense to mark their brief moment in the world, and they tell us so much that we need to remember and preserve.
Did you know there was a Year 2000 problem with gravestones? The Millennium Bug? Forget it, this was far more expensive. Apparently in America perhaps half a million people had bought headstones with a pre-carved death date beginning 19… Obviously a bargain, but obviously useless once those champagne corks started to pop. And how do you respond to that? Relief at still being alive in 2000? Or grumpy at the money you have wasted? It would certainly make an interesting addition to your garden – but t hen what else are you going to do with it?
Interest in cemeteries is not a thing of the past. A recent article I found on the internet provided a peculiar image of what the future might hold. Gravestones with embedded microchips which would communicate with a distant server where personal information could be stored. This could then be displayed for the curious visitor to see on a screen on the stone or on some handheld device. So long as the servers are still operative. It sounds to me like an attempt to corner a huge and, as yet unexploited, market – dead people. This reflects the new digital world where people are not dead but “archived”. These really would be “stories in welsh stone”, all-singing and all-dancing, with personal messages and pictures. Perhaps even adverts and sponsorship. There are endless opportunities here. Ideal for family history researchers everywhere I am sure. But I still think I prefer letters carved carefully and individually into the stone.