So this weekend I went to the amazing Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park. I was there with a mix of staff and students (undergrad to postgrad and beyond) from The University of Hertfordshire history and geography departments. This was not a conference, more of a gathering to share research in an informal atmosphere. As part of it I shared what I am up to as part of a poster presentation.
Within my tiny research world, people have started coming up to me and saying, ‘oh yes I remember you, you are the cemetery lady’. Which I kind of like. This was my first time making a poster but I’m pretty pleased with it (though I do now wish I’d added a border of skeletons). Hopefully my research question is fairly visible at the top.
I invited people to comment on it using post-its. I gave examples of Public Engagement and income generation activities at Arnos Vale Cemetery to help people to get thinking. The one that raised most eyebrows was the suggestion that income generation could be by hosting weddings!
Some really great thoughts came out of the poster discussions.
Respectful use was a big thinking point and whether re-use was ever respectful. I have always found this is a balancing act (and I’ve not always got it right in my work) and it is also site specific. Something that may work in Arnos Vale Cemetery, is considered disrespectful in another cemetery. Culture sensitivities are very much a factor in this. Rules that apply in a Jewish cemetery regarding dress or visitor gender would not apply in a cemetery like Tower Hamlets, which was set up for a variety of faiths. Digital engagement was discussed as a possible way to allow access to limited sites.
Age of a site was also an interesting factor. I am still struggling to explain why a heritage site that is a Stone age or Iron age burial site is not really considered in the same way as a Georgian or Victorian burial site. They both contain the dead but for some reasons that I’m yet to pin down properly, one is fine to explore and visit for a day but the other is considered by some as spooky, disrespectful or weird. I think it has to do with empathy. It is easier to image ourselves as a Victorian than an Iron age person. Any thoughts, links to papers etc gratefully received.
Empathy also came up as a way to engage the public though exhibitions about the lives of people remembered in a site. This is a popular way for many cemeteries to engage visitors and generate income. The Cemetery Club is a popular London based group who run excellent tours in some of the Magnificent 7. There was a fear expressed that the wrong sort of people could end up being celebrated by opening up sites of memorization as heritage spaces. Death cafes, contemplative spaces and memorial services were all suggested as public engagement activities.
A final discussion point was ensuring that the spaces were useful to the living. Can and should all burial sites be saved? What about the spaces like Cross Bones Graveyard where there are no ‘great and good’ to tell the stories of? In the case of Cross Bones, there is strong community engagement and a different kind of story to share about the outcasts of society. How do we ensure that burial spaces aren’t just saved because of the beautiful memorials but they are also saved because of the stories they can tell?
If you’d like to please tell me your thoughts on my brain dump:
- Should all burial sites be saved?
- If we save them what kinds of public engagement and income generating activities do you think are appropriate?
Answers on a virtual postcard.