Memorandum by Ken Worpole (CEM 18)
As someone who has researched and written extensively
on urban parks and cemeteries in recent years, I would like to
raise the following issues for consideration by the Environment
Sub-committee Inquiry into "Cemeteries".
The declining role of the Urban Cemetery as a
site for memory and meaning
Many Victorian cemeteries, often privately owned,
are full up, overgrown and vandalised. They lost their economic
rationale when they became full, and too often now appear a symbol
of neglect and public indifference. New cemeteries are increasingly
sited at a distance from town and city centres, where land is
cheaper, and many of them have little landscaping or horticultural
quality. The distance from the city, combined with a lack of amenity
at these burial sites, means that people are likely to visit them
Apart from the functional role which historic
urban cemeteries performed as burial places, they also served
as a gazetteer of local lives and trades, a historical archive
of the social history of the place and its people, a "silent
library" which later generations could learn from if they
so wished. To lose that sense of the past in the town or city
is to give way to the idea that cities are just about the needs
of the present, rather than settings for the cycle of life, a
legacy for succeeding generations and part of history.
Burial or cremationare these meaningful
choices in a secular, market economy?
The popularity of cremation may be a result
of negative choices: either the cost of burial is perceived as
too expensive, or the fact that local burial is no longer available
may mean that people choose cremation rather than be buried at
some distance from where they have lived. Within the economics
of death and bereavement, an increasing part of the costs are
taken up with the handling and care of the body, the preparation
of, and arrangements for, the funeral itselfall now largely
in the hands of the private sectorrather than the long
term costs of maintaining graves and cemeteries. One should support
the "Dead Citizens' Charter" claim for the right to
local, accessible interment. Even the interment of cremated remains
could be given a more local setting.
The need for new forms and places of memorialisation
in the Town and City
To some extent the public apprehension of deathin
the midst of lifehas been banished from the daily experience
of urban living, as local funeral processions are increasingly
rare, and cremation and interment happen well away from the heart
of the town or city. Unlike Finland (which I know well) and some
other European countries, the British do not use the occasion
of All Souls Day or some other set occasion to visit cemeteries
en masse, to light candles, and sit and talk. The redemptive
qualities of the "English country churchyard" have not
been captured in this century by a similar attention to the sanctuary
and reflective qualities of the urban cemeteryat least
in the UK.
Yet it is also clear that people are anxious
to mark death, as can be seen from the rising trend for people
to leave wreathes and flowers at the site of a local accident,
murder or other untoward fatality. Close to where I live in north
London, in recent months two deathsone of a child who fell
into a canal, and the other of a schoolboy who died from stab
wounds after a bus stop fracashave both become places where
large numbers of flowers and messages of sympathy have been placed.
This trend has been noticed by many religious and secular commentators
in recent months, and should be noted.
The cemetery represents organic life and nature
in the midst of an increasingly technological and hard surfaced
Like the urban park, the cemetery is a reminder
of the organic and natural topography which lies beneath the city,
and which modern architecture and planning has often tried to
deny. Today, however, ecologists and environmentalists are urging
us to pay attention to the natural features which can help cities
survive and make life better by respecting topological orientations,
local micro-climates, and other natural processes which could
assist in making urban life more sustainable and environmentally
self-sufficient. The urban cemetery is a vital reminder that the
city itself, and its citizens, are part of a natural world, and
should be in greater harmony and equilibrium with it.
It should also be noted that environmentalists
have begun to question some of the potentially polluting qualities
of cremation, and argue now for more environmentally-friendly,
"green burials". Attitudes towards death and disposal
are changing, offering opportunities to think afresh about burial,
memorialisation and ritual in contemporary society. Cemeteries
have in the past been focal points of community identitywhy
should they not be so again?
The absence of any new thinking about the aesthetics
of cemetery landscaping, design and architecture in the UK
There is a dearth of thinking amongst cemetery
managers, landscape architects and architects about new designs
for urban cemeteries and memorial gardens. One great exemplar
has dominated European design in the 20th century: the Stockholm
Woodland Cemetery. In Northern Europe and Germany there have been
many new cemeteries established with high landscaping values and
aestheticsbut this is much rarer in Britain.
Remedying the situation
Of the many steps which need to be taken to
reverse the neglect into which the urban cemetery has fallen,
the following seem to be amongst the most important. I would urge
the Sub-committee to:
Identify where in local authority
management and delivery the need for cemetery provision and management
is best located. This may involve much closer involvement withand
regulation ofthe private sector.
Make recommendations with regard
to the need for new professional skills in the public sector with
regard to burial and cremation provision.
Ask the landscaping and architectural
professions to give much more serious consideration to the design
of new kinds of cemeteries, memorial grounds and gardens, and
headstones and funerary architecture.
Respond to the government's Urban
White Paper by noting that although much urban brownfield land
may be needed for housing, the need for new kinds of parks, memorial
gardens and even cemeteries is also important for establishing
the sense of "urbanity" and "history" which
are the marks of true urban living.
Make representations to the New Opportunities
Fund of the National Lottery to give serious consideration to
the funding of new kinds of urban cemeteries and memorial gardens,
either as part of its present "green spaces and sustainable
communities" programme, or its proposed new "transforming
communities" fund. Only by identifying the funding and setting
out a clear brief for a programme of investment can we expect
to see innovative thinking and planning for new kinds of urban
memorial gardens, squares and even cemeteries. The British have
not been particularly inventive about new kinds of green spaces
in towns and cities since the mono-cultural "recreation ground"
of the 1930s, but the Lottery offers a rare opportunity to think
seriously once again about creating spaces of meaning and memory
in the urban fabricespecially in a more secular, but also
more multi-cultural society.
Consider whether an organisation
such as Common Ground might be invited and funded to promote All
Souls Day or another nominated annual date as an occasion when
people undertook to take care of their local burial grounds and
Ken Worpole is the author of "The Cemetery
in the City", published by Comedia in 1997, and more recently
"Here Comes the Sun: Architecture and Public Space in 20th
Century European Culture", published by Reaktion Books, 2000,
which includes a consideration of the loss of "sanctuary
space" in the modern urban fabric.