Why Cemetery Research?

Cemetery research, especially of 19th century garden cemeteries may seem like an odd choice for an archaeologist, but these Victorian Valhalla’s have so many things to offer the archaeologist and interested enthusiast alike.

I’m very interested in the interplay between history and archaeology. History is deliberate, recorded account. Archaeology gets you to the heart of everyday occurrences; birth, growing, loving, dying, based on material evidence. Any cemetery is a place where archaeology- the practices of people in the past, their rituals, monuments and organisation of the world, meets history – the stories they wanted to tell about themselves and their culture, through symbols and inscriptions. There are few other sites where this interplay is so clearly seen, and few sites at all where ordinary people have recorded anything about their lives; especially not in such multitudes as are represented in any 19th century cemetery. Every grave has a personal story, which may differ from the wider ‘public’ story of the cemetery as a whole, or add to it. Even those graves which were unmarked tell a story. A story of those who are hidden in society, whose resting place; like their lives, would have been wholly unremarked except for a note on a map marking the common grave and an entry in the ledger.

Of course anthropology can also inform cemetery research, especially with recent European history it is so tempting to impose a modern interpretation onto a place or monument and miss the subtlety and distinctions of meaning. By studying the funerary practices and landscapes of different people around the world we are reminded to look deeper; to attempt to inhabit the shoes of those who attended the funerals, erected the headstones and wandered the pathways of these incredible spaces. Funerals are first and foremost about grief, but they are also an opportunity for social display and power maneuvering and represent an idealized view of the deceased.

‘Gravestones tell truth scarce fourty years’ (Browne 1658)

Whilst it is accurate to say that 40 years after an individual dies there will be few people around who remember the deceased, as long as the stone survives it continues to be tell a story about them, whether this story is the ‘truth’ is another matter. A memorial is a specific portrayal of the individual by those who survive them – the dead do not bury themselves (Parker Pearson 1999) and so cemeteries tell us more about the living than they do the dead.

Another reason why I’m looking at 19th century cemeteries is a simple one; they have been incredibly understudied from an archaeological perspective. I can list dozens of great books and articles written about garden cemeteries from historical, anthropological, architectural and myriad other perspectives, but within archaeology they have been largely overlooked. Perhaps this is because of their relative modernity; until relatively recently there was little in the way of post-medieval archaeology at all; with so many documentary sources to work from it may have seemed there was little archaeology could add to our knowledge of these periods. However garden cemeteries were an entirely new kind of funerary landscape and thus hugely important in representing the first major change in European funerary practice since the early medieval period, and can be studied using the same archaeological techniques are any other landscape of death from a Viking ship burial or Bronze-Age Round Barrow to the Taj Mahal.

Some fascinating archaeological work is being carried out on 19th century places of burial, but all too frequently this is in the context of ‘rescue archaeology’ when a cemetery clearance is being conducted, sometimes with only a fraction of memorials or remains being studied properly, the rest simply being disinterred for re-burial elsewhere by a cemetery clearance company. These sites are endangered; few are protected by legislation, some lucky ones have been listed by English Heritage (108 were listed in the updated register in 2011), but many are being entirely neglected. The cemetery companies who built them having gone bankrupt when burial space was used up, local councils have neither the time nor resources to care properly for the cemeteries for which they now find themselves responsible. Friends groups and trusts, often run by volunteers do what they can, but it is a herculean task and so inevitably, all around Britain there are memorials quietly crumbling, becoming engulfed in ivy or sinking and chapels standing open to the sky, their roofs missing due to the slow decay of years or in some cases vandalism, their records used as bedding by sleepy mice. I feel compelled to preserve these places; by record if not in their physical entirety. Each memorial or grave location lost is a life unremembered, an unknown soul, and that is a bleak prospect; for each one makes up part of the larger picture that is 19th century life.

There is a wealth of literature about how the sanitisation and distancing of death in the 20th and 21st centuries has affected modern funerary customs, their increasing uniformity and neglect. This also affects the way 19th century cemeteries are treated; there are seen as morbid, unpleasant places to visit. This is a view far removed that of from the Victorians who enjoyed the cemetery as a place of recreation and moral improvement, as spaces of great beauty, filled with art and nature. I hope that by sharing my passion I can change the minds of those who wander past but never enter, help the curiosity overcome the distrust, because it is not the dead who need these places; it is the living.

And the final reason? They are enchanting place, with a quiet atmosphere, full of a kind of peace found in so few places in this age of bustle and hurry. The monuments are truly works of art; from the simplest headstone to the largest mausoleum, all have touches of craftsmanship rarely seen elsewhere, cemeteries are public sculpture parks. They are also havens for nature, a last refuge in our sprawling cities for greenery and bird-song. A fitting tribute to their original intention to stand in stark contrast to the over-crowded squalor of urban churchyards. Each cemetery has a personality and becomes like a familiar face; instantly recognizable from a glance; the streets of mausoleums at Pere Lachaise, the ivy tangled stones at Highgate or the field of Celtic crosses at Glasnevin. They get into your mind and your heart and may never be forgotten.

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