The Cemetery Lady

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.

cumberland lodge 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.

troopers hill tour

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.






Let’s talk about death, baby

Death is cool now?

So according to The Guardian Death is cool.  It seems that events, news items and exhibitions exploring death, dying and human remains are popping up all over the place in UK.  It also looks like heritage and arts venues and universities are at the forefront of putting this into the public eye, working collaboratively with people directly involved with death.  Maybe it is easier for these institutions to begin the conversations because things they own, use and exhibit are all from dead people.  In 2016 Bristol Museums unveiled its massively successful exhibition ‘Death:The Human Experience‘.  Despite displaying items that might be regarded as challenging, including two boxes of human cremains (cremation ashes) and items made from human remains, the audiences and award kept coming.  The National Trust’s Sutton House also played host to Life, Death, Whatever in 2016.  This is was the month long festival featured all the usual elements that would make up a public event its theme was certainly not usual.  An event that occurs during Dying Matters Week debuted in 2017. A Matter of Life and Death by the Brum Yodo collective is hosted at Birmingham Mac and Birmingham Museum plus events in burial grounds and crematoriums.  This event encourages people to have conversations about death, dying and mortality. I was also lucky enough to attend Death and the Maiden conference hosted at the University of Winchester (which has a Death Studies department) which was amazing and inspiring.


Obviously I need to mention Arnos Vale Cemeteries very own event Life, Death and the Rest #lifedeathrest which is happening this February. The events will encourage people to ask their questions about death and dying in a space that is perfect for these conversations.

Death positive

So why talk about death at all?  We all know we are going to die, that is the nature of the human condition.  However Freud claims, ‘in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality’.  We fear death, in particular a bad death, so surely we should talk about it to mitigate this.  This is where the natural reticence of the British comes out.  We don’t want to upset people by talking about our demise or theirs. That’s the kindest way, right?  Well no.  Often terminally ill, people with life limiting conditions or frail elderly people want to discuss their dying and death. They want to be involved in ensuring a good death and what that means to them.  However stifling conversation with ‘don’t talk about that’ or ‘don’t be silly, you’ll be fine’ infantalises and minimises them. Talking about your own wishes for your body after death can also be incredibly helpful to loved ones.  Making your own decisions about cremation or burial, organ donation or even music at your funeral, can leave them space to grieve without worrying they’ve done the wrong thing.


Talking about death won’t kill you

Hopefully I’ve begun to convince you that death and dying is ok to talk about.  If you want to think more around talking about the big D then you can’t go wrong with the great resources from The Order of the Good Death. It is a bit US-centric at times but if nothing else watch the videos to hear the amazing Caitlin Doughty which is always a treat. If you want to start a conversation try a death cafe or check out these resources 

Oh and if you want to know what I want for my funeral here’s a hint;

glass hearse



Everlasting memory

coloured immortelle

So recently I’ve been getting my head around the concept of Material Culture.

Cliff notes definition is: ‘Material culture refers to the physical objects, resources, and spaces that people use to define their culture.’ In particular I’m trying to look at objects using the J. Prown methodology from his paper Mind in Matter (1982) which involves description, deduction, and speculation.

I’ve been applying the theory to one of my favourite objects in the Arnos Vale collection.  This is an Immortelle, a wreath for placing on a grave. They were usually made of china or plaster of Paris.  They were often purchased from funeral outfitters or funeral directors. It is the more attractive (in my opinion) precursor to the plastic flowers found on modern graves. Generally these wreaths were placed on graves under a glass dome to protect them from the elements.  This one was recovered from an grave when Arnos Vale Cemetery was being cleared after its significant period of neglect.  Ironically the overgrowth of bramble and ivy probably protected this item from weather, human or animal damage.  This is the pre-lifting from the grave it was found on.

immortelle (20)

I can only imagine the excitement and confusion of the volunteer clearing the grave when they found what looked like a china flower! I keep hoping we will uncover another, but nothing yet.

With no provenance it is hard to date but it  is probably from the Edwardian era, rather than Victorian. The chunky decoration and bright colours leads me to this conclusion after taking a look at verified Victorian immortelles.   The grave it came from lists the first burial in 1884 and the last in 1915, a quite wide range to guess when it was placed!  It is unlikely to be post-WW1 as the manufacture of plastics became much better so plastic flowers were likely to be used instead on a grave.  Investigating immortelles led me briefly down a strange path exploring the surprisingly long history of fake flowers.  I was amazed to discover that the Ancient Egyptians created fake flowers using linen and horn shavings,  and the Romans used gold and silver.

The great thing about the material culture approach is summed up by Anne Gerritsen and Giorgio Riello  in the introduction to Writing Material Culture History,

Yet the people that replaced kings and queens, prime minsters and general as the subjects of history did not necessarily leave substantial written records. One of the ways in which we can trace their lives is through the material goods they left behind.’

It isn’t just the written record that can tell us about the people of the past, especially the stories of the ordinary person.  This is the person we are more likely to relate to than the ‘great and the good’ of written record.

Then of course, I had to become a part of the objects story. Here I am lifting the piece.  Yes I am aware I not wearing gloves but I decided that the sensitivity in my hands when lifting would be impaired if I wore them plus cotton or plastic may catch on the jagged edges.

immortelle (16)

This is not the only immortelle in the Arnos Vale Cemetery collection, there is another Victorian piece that is beautifully delicate but faded from weather and harsh cleaning.

white immortelle

So what do these items tell me about the people who laid them.  They mourned like us, they bought items of convenience like us and their culture was not the different to ours.

There is an argument to made that these items were laid in memory of someone, they belonged to someone and they should be left in situ; but that’s a discussion for another blog (or feel free to comment).

These immortelles are the inspiration for not one, but two logos.  The Friends of Arnos Vale logo, and the new amazing new logo created by Bethan Lientie for Life, Death (and the Rest).


These items continue to inspire discussion about death, dying and mourning long after they were originally laid in remembrance of a loved one.