Victorian Cemeteries

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 The  Burial Act of 1852 (repealed in 1972) required the General Board of Health to  establish cemeteries to deal with the problem.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.

Pere Lachaise in Paris

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 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.

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