I spend a lot of time writing the word cemetery. I work in a historic cemetery and I am also undertaking a professional doctorate on public engagement in historic cemeteries. So its something I can define in a trice, right? Well not entirely. As with most things historical or academic you have to define your terms and sometimes this takes a fair amount of words or examples in the case of this blog. You might think a churchyard, a graveyard, a burial ground and a cemetery are the same thing, but you would be wrong.
The classic Garden Cemetery
I visit, write about and research mostly UK and Irish city cemeteries from 1819 to 1910. These burial grounds are usually called historic cemeteries or in America rural or lawn cemetery. Cemeteries from this period are often Garden Cemeteries originally laid out in field, local beauty spot or garden but they can also be found in old quarries like St James Cemetery in Liverpool, or on top of hill like Glasgow Necropolis. These cemeteries are almost always Christian in nature; either Anglican (in England), or non-conformist. There are also couple of relevant Jewish cemeteries, which I will cover separately. These cemeteries are deliberately laid out; unlike their predecessors the churchyard, graveyard or Kirk which developed organically around a central building, a central place of worship but historic cemeteries don’t have a place of worship on site. The chapel(s) on site are mortuary chapel (a place just for burial services) and not originally used for worship services, or marriages and baptisms. These chapels should not be confused with non-conformist chapels for used for worship. In fact, many of these garden cemeteries are not consecrated at all as they were set up by ‘dissenters‘ and have not been blessed by the local Anglican bishop. Some of them have sections, like Arnos Vale, that were consecrated although a few were set up as overflow cemeteries for the local church and these are generally fully consecrated. The historic cemetery movement inspired by French cemetery Père-Lachaise which is both the largest park and the largest cemetery in Paris and was built in 1804.
A place for people
It may come as a surprise to some readers but these historic cemeteries are designed for the living as well as the dead. They have wide sweeping paths, beautiful chapels, administration buildings and were usually planted with a wide range of beautiful trees, shrubs and plants. They are designed landscape with central focal points and created views that draw the eye.
The father of the garden cemetery movement, John Claudius Loudon wrote his book, ‘On the laying out, planting and managing of cemeteries and on the improvement of churchyards‘ about the uses of cemeteries:
Several guide books were even produced for these cemeteries in the Victorian era, so visiting a cemetery was a leisure activity in the 19th century, see a previous blog.
So are all historic cemeteries the same?
All the historic cemeteries I have researched are different and no two are really alike. They often have a mix and match of a range of items and styles. Styles include: gothic like West Norwood Cemetery, Egyptian like Highgate Cemetery both in London, or neoclassical like Arnos Vale Cemetery.
They often feature stunning entrance ways, catacombs, columbarium and beautiful chapels. The chapels, especially at the earlier sites, are statement buildings and may well be in a specific style or a mix.
The Grade II* Samuel Worth Chapel at Sheffield General Cemetery has classical columns and design but Egyptian features reflecting its main gates.
Alternatively chapels might be divided into Anglican and Non-conformist but joined in the middle with a Porte cochere like at Greenbank Cemetery in Bristol.
One of the defining features of most these historic cemeteries is the deliberate planting of specimen trees and other plants. This was to clean the air, make the place a pleasant place to visit by providing shade and as also as an arboretum for all. Abney Park in London is probably the most well known of these and was originally planted with over 2,500 varieties of plants from a scheme by George Loddiges, naturalist and gardener. Arnos Vale Cemetery was also had a wide range of planting and features native and non-native trees including Irish and English yew, monkey puzzle, willow, ash, sycamore, cherry, beech, western red cedar, holm oak and Austrian pine.
Other types of cemetery
So I’ve outlined the basics of a garden cemetery from the 19th century but what other cemeteries exist. The word cemetery itself comes from the Greek κοιμητήριον which means sleeping place and bodies have been buried in cemeteries for thousands of year. Kerameikos in Athens is a great example of a ancient cemetery and there is evidence it was used as early as the 3rd Century BC. Ancient Romans disposed of their dead either by burial in a cemetery outside the city walls, though at some points they cremated their dead. However in the UK cemeteries date from the 19th century. In Scotland, there are also burial grounds called Kirkyard that tend to be connected to a Kirk (or churche) and sometimes are similar to cemeteries in appearance.
In the UK 19th and 20th century war dead do not have to be buried in specific war cemeteries and there are many examples of war dead in public historic or modern cemeteries. However there are a number of war cemeteries in the UK and Europe which are the last resting place of service personnel from mainly WW1 and WW2. These cemeteries are not usually open for burial to non-military personnel and in the UK most of them are run the Commonwealth War Graves commission (even if the graves are not of commonwealth member). Cannock Chase Military Cemetery is the last resting place of mainly servicemen from New Zealand and Germany, but there are a few remembered there who came from UK. There are 2 military cemeteries in Surrey: Brookwood American Cemetery which is for American service personnel only, and Brookwood Military Cemetery which is the last resting place of a number of commonwealth service personnel but also includes American, Canadian, French, Polish, Czechoslovakian, Belgian and Italian service personnel. Cambridge American Cemetery is also only for American service personnel and is run by the American Battle Monuments Commission. Wales has one dedicated military cemetery in Pembrokeshire called Pembroke Dock Military Cemetery but the cemetery is not exclusively for Welsh service personnel.
The cemetery that is closest to a historic 19th century garden cemetery is Aldershot Military Cemetery which was originally set up by the Royal Engineers in the 1850’s and nearly 17,000 service personnel of nine nations are laid to rest in the cemetery. However it is unusual because certain civilians can also be buried in the cemetery if they have a military or family connection. Although set up as a cemetery with a chapel similar to a historic garden cemetery, the chapel was originally wood which suggests it was not permeant or specifically designed like a historic cemetery. The site is laid out with neat rows but it was not particularly landscaped and was not intended to be a public green space space. It does follow the idea of a cemetery as an arboretum and although few records of its creation survive, the trees on site appear to have been planted when the cemetery was set up.
Non-Christian Cemeteries and burial grounds
During the 19th century the main faith group being buried in city cemeteries were Christian, either non-conformist (dissenter) or Anglican. However another major faith group that created cemeteries in the UK were people of the Jewish faith and according to their faith, Jewish people must be buried as soon as possible after death so its important for this community to have a suitable place that can respond quickly to this need. There are a few Jewish burial sites in the UK that were created in the 19th century and the most famous of these is Willsden Green Jewish Cemetery which was set up in 1873. The fabulous historical video on their website explains that the cemetery was set up to echo the other great Victorian cemeteries around London and that it was not like other Jewish burial places of the time. Although not conforming entirely to the standard style of the historic garden cemetery as there is no chapel. there is still a prayer hall. Another point of difference is that a Jewish Cemetery is also not designed as an arboretum as trees on or near graves are not allowed as they may disturb graves. However this Jewish Cemetery has trees and planting along the borders to provide shade and interest. Although most Jewish people were buried in Jewish cemeteries by the 19th century, there are a number of Jewish people buried in unconsecrated ground in historic cemeteries in the UK. It is also worth nothing that unlike most historic cemeteries, very few Jewish cemeteries contain cremated ashes as the Jewish law says that they should be buried in earth.
There are now also Muslim burial grounds in the UK but all of these were developed after the end of the historic garden cemetery period.
Some faiths that are aligned to Christianity but are not Christian like Quaker, Johavah’s Witness, Unitarian may well be buried in standard cemeteries in unconsecrated ground. If not then they were generally buried in modest small burial areas or graveyards attached to their religious hall or chapel in the 18th and 19th century.
I have not listed modern cemeteries in this article because these are not yet places people tend to go to for a visit. Many are very municipal in design and are designed to tended efficiently not as places to explore and enjoy ecology. Due to local council rules most monuments are very similar in height, design and style making them rather uninteresting. The buildings on site are also designed to be practical rather than attractive and are generally not architecturally appealing, though Hilary Granger does feature some outstanding examples in her book Death Redesigned: The Architecture of British Crematoria. Unlike historic cemeteries, people are not encouraged visit modern cemeteries for leisure or recreation and these sites are not designed for leisure. In addition any modern cemeteries tend to have a crematorium on site making the sites busy with mourners and visiting for leisure would be disrespectful or challenging.
So next time you come across a place of the dead, try and work out if you are in a cemetery, a graveyard, burial ground or Kirkyard.