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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, December 2003 Contents

Berkshire Family Historian
December 2003

Researching cemeteries
Dr Julie Rugg

The aim of the Cemetery Research Group, set up at the University of York in 1991, is to research and understand the cultural significance of cemeteries, and conducts both historical and contemporary studies in the ownership, management and use of different types of burial space. There is a growing interest in the subject of cemeteries, as local history societies flourish, and people pursuing family history follow leads from or to a gravestone in a local burial ground. Despite the growing interest, however, there remain many, many unanswered questions about cemeteries and their history, and this short article will sketch out some areas of interest that could usefully be pursued by historians with local expertise.

A cemetary

The history of individual cemeteries can often easily be pursued through local history and archive offices. Even researching when a particular site opened can reveal an interesting local story. It is often the case that, prior to a cemetery’s actual opening data, a ‘pre-history’ is in evidence, of local discussion on the need for new burial space, debate on which agency should take responsibility, and the sometimes protracted measures taken to secure land and lay it out for burial purposes. Local sources such as newspapers and council minutes can be studied to understand this early history, and the ongoing management of the site can be reviewed through the relevant committee minutes and documentation. In some areas, additional documentation such as business records and administrative records, and correspondence from users of the cemetery is also available.

In order to understand the sorts of questions that can be asked of this material, some thought needs to be given to the subject of definition. Cemeteries are very specific types of burial space, having some key distinguishing features. These include their physical appearance, their ownership and management, the way in which the individuality of the deceased is dealt with at the site, and their ‘sacredness’. Describing each of these features in turn sets out a research framework on cemeteries and other types of burial space and expands the study of cemeteries beyond ‘who lies where’ research that does not always draw out the full range of meaning that each site contains.

First, some thought needs to be given to the physical characteristics of cemeteries. Cemeteries are highly artificial landscapes, and their layout is determined by views on what was thought to be an appropriate setting for the disposal of the dead. For example, during the middle years of the nineteenth century, a higher stress was placed on elaborate planting, serpentine pathways and impressive vistas, in order to satisfy Romantic sensibilities on the value of natural environments as a consoling context for grief. Cemetery landscapes are by no means static, and different maintenance regimes have over time eradicated some of the initial planting although these alterations too will have a specific rationale. Very little research has been completed on change in cemetery landscapes that looks at the history of one site, and this sort of research is again valuable to an understanding of alterations in opinion on what was an appropriate landscape environment for burial and the value placed on the cemetery as a civic amenity.

In addition, cemeteries could be highly hierarchical in their layout, with separate classes of graves on offer, from the ‘first class’ graves offering prime location on corners and main roadways to pauper burials usually located at the periphery of sites. Thus questions can be asked not only about who was buried at the site, but where they were buried within the site, and the statements that were being made about that location.

A tomb

Second, a great deal of valuable research can be completed on the ownership and management of cemeteries. Perhaps the first question to be asked about any site is ‘who owns it?’, and then ‘why do they own it?’. The answer is not always obvious or uncontentious. For much of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, new cemeteries were laid out by cemetery companies, which, through the sale of shares, purchased and laid out sites, and then paid a dividend to shareholders. Although these companies have been castigated as examples of Victorian entrepreneurship at its most crass, on closer inspection they are often found to be civic enterprises, dominated by local worthies looking to add a valuable amenity to the town without recourse to an increase in the rates. In some areas, this action provoked religious controversy as the Established Church objected to this incursion in its virtual monopoly of burial, and Dissenters and Church of England congregations battled over apportionment of the land once a cemetery had been built. After the middle of the nineteenth century, as Burial Boards came to dominate cemetery foundation, similar arguments were in evidence. Ownership of the place of burial conveys substantial power that during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was shifting from ecclesiastical to secular authorities, and local histories of this change have yet to be written.

Third, burial sites can be distinguished by the way in which they protect or enhance the individuality of the deceased. During the nineteenth century, Romanticism placed a great stress on the uniqueness of the individual, and cemeteries flourished because of their ability to offer burial in perpetuity, or burial where there was a guarantee that the body would never be disturbed. In addition, cemeteries offered the possibility that families could erect memorials over their grave, so making the grave a focus for ritual behaviour that was certainly constrained within the gruesomely overcrowded urban churchyards of the first half of the nineteenth century. Recent studies have shown that a comparison of burial registers with memorial inscriptions do not always tally, and that family members memorialised on a particular monument may be buried elsewhere within the site. Again, valuable work is yet to be completed on funerary practices with regard to the decisions taken by families with regard to memorialisation, the use of grave space, and attitudes towards having to make recourse to unmarked, pauper burial. This kind of material could be found in family papers, and has — in one recent study — been pursued through correspondence to Burial Boards.

Again, attitudes towards memorialisation change over time. During the twentieth century cemetery aesthetics shifted towards a simpler, more communal approach to memorialisation. There was a reduced emphasis on the site of burial itself, and a greater interest in recreating cemeteries as ‘gardens of rest’, devoid of what was thought to be ugly and morbid stonework that said more about snobbery than sentiment. Again, family papers and oral histories would be essential to understanding how people viewed these shifts in purpose for cemeteries.
Finally, cemeteries can be understood in terms of ‘sacredness’. Sacredness can be defined in a number of ways, and in this paper it can be viewed as being afforded special status or protection. It is worth asking of a cemetery, ‘What - if anything - makes this site sacred?’. Churchyards are often regarded as being sacred because of their physical connection with a church and because of the control of ecclesiastical authorities but notwithstanding these factors, churchyards are vulnerable to alteration for other purposes — for example, being cleared and laid out as small parks. Cemeteries are afforded greater protection since their sacredness in part derives from the fact that they are still used for burial and remain places of ‘pilgrimage’ by people who routinely visit graves. However, sacredness remains a contested notion. Bereaved people, family and local historians, groups with an interest in a particular famous individual buried in a grave, and heritage and nature groups all regard cemeteries as sacred for different reasons, and charting the importance ascribed to a site over time is again a valuable history to follow. Where cemeteries fall into disuse, their history does not end, and understanding their changing functions within a location again says a great deal about how a community deals with death.

This paper has reviewed some questions that can be asked about cemeteries, and aims to generate a wider interest in the study of burial places in themselves as exciting subjects for local research. Further information on some of the issues discussed here and a bibliography can be found at the Cemetery Research Group website on <>.

Dr Julie Rugg, the Cemetery Research Group, University of York, conducts research on many aspects of cemeteries and their cultural sign ificance. Her doctoral thesis considered the emergence of cemetery companies in the UK in the first half of the nineteenth century, but her interests are widely international and cover cemetery history in the western world from around 1740 to the present day.

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