Crumbling headstones and tangled foliage: Abney Park cemetery. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

What cemeteries tell us about how we live now

The pandemic may have increased the demand for cemeteries, but it has also re-established their rightful role as theatres of life, as well as mourning
December 6, 2020

In recent months, my local cemetery has been livelier than ever. The usual dog-walkers and joggers have been joined by others needing somewhere to go—hipsters strolling abreast in groups of six along avenues lined with graves; couples on dates, perched on benches with takeaway meals in foil containers. There seem to be more visitors, too, intent on borrowing the mood of the place, with its crumbling, cockeyed headstones and tangled foliage. One Sunday morning I found a group of people reading a play aloud on the raised platform of the war memorial; 100 metres on, two women dressed in black were engaged in an ad hoc photo shoot with a teddy bear.

Through the months of Covid-19 regulations, for most city-dwellers parks have been the principal venue for leisure, meeting and exercising. As they grew crowded, other types of green space, and especially large urban cemeteries, naturally became overflow venues for a population that has been improvising new routines and social lives. Abney Park in northeast London, with its unfamiliar buzz, is no longer a “working cemetery”—that is to say, it is closed to further burials. It is run as a park by Hackney Council, with events, education and restoration programmes handled by a local charity, the Abney Park Trust.

Scan local newspapers from across the country and a pattern of sorts emerges, in which cemeteries are likewise claimed as breathing spaces by the living. In November alone, there were stories from Middlesbrough, Sheffield and towns in Leicestershire, where local residents have been angry about being denied access to cemeteries. (During the second lockdown, public health restrictions in England have prohibited access to some working cemeteries other than for funerals, burials or visiting graves.)

There have been other stories too, sad and sometimes sensational, concerning their more familiar function as resting places for the dead. Scholemoor Cemetery on Necropolis Road in Bradford struggled to process the dead, and stowaway mourners hid in cemetery grounds in Birmingham to thwart the restrictive rules about gathering. (Only 30 mourners are allowed.) It is a bitter irony that during 2020, hypothetically at least, one might have been kept away from the interment of a friend or relative, only able to “attend” remotely via video link, and yet on another day, with a different purpose, have been free to stroll past or loiter at the plot where they were buried. The pandemic has disrupted how we mark and manage death, even while it has demanded that we live differently in our endeavours to avoid it.

It is unlikely that Tinder picnickers have migrated to Abney Park and its peers in search of intimations of mortality. (Andrew Marvell might have had words for them: “The grave’s a fine and private place / But none, I think, do there embrace.”) All the same, remembrance and recreation have long coexisted in civic cemeteries. This is part of their founding logic, at least insofar as their design followed the principles of the burial reform movement, which began to gain ground in the 1840s in response to the unsanitary conditions of many urban burial grounds and church crypts. Writing in 1843, the landscape gardener John Claudius Loudon was adamant that, were his reformist tenets to be followed, cemeteries “would be as healthy as gardens and pleasure-grounds, and would form the most interesting of all places for contemplative recreation.”

Loudon thought, too, that cemeteries should contain “botanical riches” and that they might be for “the poor man… a local history and biography.” In their conception, then, Victorian garden cemeteries foreshadowed the overlapping functions into which many of them had settled before the lockdown: as nature reserves, havens and heritage sites, theatres of life as well as places of remembrance. For all the challenges of conserving historical cemeteries, few now suffer from the neglect that in previous decades threatened their survival. In 1966, the architectural critic Ian Nairn could write of Highgate Cemetery in north London that it “closes well before dark, and a good job too.” Some two decades later, in V, the poet Tony Harrison recounted visiting Holbeck Cemetery, Leeds, where he found his parents’ grave defiled by graffiti: “How many British graveyards now this May / are strewn with rubbish and choked up with weeds / since families and friends have gone away / for work or fuller lives, like me from Leeds?”

[su_pullquote]“Scan local newspapers from across the country and a pattern of sorts emerges, in which cemeteries are likewise claimed as breathing spaces by the living”[/su_pullquote]

The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust was founded in 1975. In 1981, it acquired the freehold of the site. Since then it has effectively safeguarded the historical landscape and monuments, while managing both east and west sections as working cemeteries. That ownership arrangement is unusual, with most urban cemeteries now the responsibility of local councils (of the “Magnificent Seven” that girdled Victorian London—as they were dubbed by the architectural historian Hugh Meller in the 1980s—only Kensal Green is still run by its commercial instigators, the General Cemetery Company). But at most historical cemeteries, council-managed or otherwise, local volunteer associations have worked to restore and research these sites, and to make them more accessible to an increasingly curious public. Even if not in direct response to the obscene graffiti described in V, the Friends of Holbeck Cemetery was founded in 2001.

Meanwhile, numerous books of the dead have furthered our understanding of particular cemeteries as well as the social, religious and architectural contexts in which they prospered, decayed and have been revitalised—from James Stevens Curl’s The Victorian Celebration of Death (1972) to Ken Worpole’s Last Landscapes (2003) and Catharine Arnold’s Necropolis: London and its Dead (2006). Then there have been guidebooks and successful websites including, which draw attention to notable monuments and the graves of the famous and infamous. “Spend the day with Marc Bolan, Karl Marx, Enid Blyton, Keith Moon, Sigmund Freud and many more” proclaims the cover of Metro Guides’ London’s Cemeteries, first published in 2006 and since reprinted several times, most recently in 2019. (Bolan and Freud no longer make the cover.) Some cemeteries, particularly those on the heritage trail, have added visitor facilities such as cafés: visitor centres are planned at Highgate and Abney Park, while Brookwood Cemetery near Woking, to which the London Necropolis Railway used to run from Waterloo Station, is developing a “Museum of Death.” Browsing the dead has become a respectable pastime; Loudon might well be smiling in his grave.

Two 2020 books, Peter Ross’s A Tomb with a View: The Stories & Glories of Graveyards and poet Jean Sprackland’s These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards, inevitably rehearse some of this material but refresh it through their personal perspectives. It feels appropriate to write about cemeteries in a knowingly subjective voice, since they are places in which we contemplate how, for all of us, the first person must one day give way to the third. Of the two authors, Sprackland is more autobiographical, presenting a series of return visits to graveyards and cemeteries across England in which she has lingered throughout her life: they are “the otherworlds which have helped me make sense of this world.” Ross is more like a self-conscious anthropologist, alert to the ethical quandaries of exploring other people’s relationships with the dead as he recounts visiting cemeteries in England, Scotland, Ireland and Flanders. “It isn’t just a visitor experience to be given a star rating,” he writes of the crypt of St Michan’s, Dublin, in which mummified remains are visible.

Both books were written before the pandemic thrust its daily toll into the news cycle, although A Tomb with a View includes an author’s note from the spring, acknowledging the encroaching uncertainty and fear with which we have all since lived. Nonetheless, they share a concern for how, in a world in which some deaths are noticed more than others, we might commemorate what Tennyson called “the little lives of men.”

“How can we know the person from the massed anonymous dead?” Sprackland asks. That consideration has only intensified this year, as the loss of so many individuals has been subsumed into official graphs and statistics. On Twitter, the hashtag #RIP, followed by a first name, has frequently trended—an assertion of remembrance that sets itself against the whim of an algorithm.

In practice, their interest in the unsung dead means that both Sprackland and Ross eschew the tombs of celebrities in favour of the graves of lesser-known or unrecognised individuals (and Sprackland, in particular, favours smaller churchyards over more bombastic cemeteries). It is sometimes thought that death is democratic—the great leveller—but of course the wherewithal of the dead has dictated the extent and situation of their memorials. Many Victorian tombstones advertise the late address of the departed as though drawing an alternative map—one that retains social hierarchies—to overlay these cities of the dead.

In some senses, the Victorian assertion of the individuality of the dead, in terms of how they have been memorialised, has been countered in practice since the early 20th century. After its legalisation in 1902, following almost three decades of campaigning by the Cremation Society, cremation gradually came to outstrip burial as a funerary custom in the UK, and now around three quarters of Britons are cremated. The commemoration of war dead with uniform headstones (or listed as lost on monuments, such as the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval) promoted an aesthetic of common grief over individual mourning. More recently, natural burial in a wood or meadow, which is frequently recorded by GPS co-ordinates rather than physical markers, has gained ground as an alternative funerary custom.

Nevertheless, as Sprackland writes, “The small scrap of detail on a gravestone can make it possible to retrieve the individual.” She salvages what she can of the lapsed lives of recusants, of dead children, of a young girl whose congenital disorder led her to be displayed as “the smallest living child in the world” in the mid-19th century, of a Victorian “van-dweller,” “one of the founders of a movement to defend the rights of travelling people,” whose cortège in Norwich was witnessed by thousands of mourners. “In an old graveyard the mind snags on stories,” Ross writes. He, too, is sensitive to the overlooked individual, including those who act as custodians of graveyards. There is a moving account of the late Shane MacThomáis, a guide at Glasnevin in Dublin who took his life in the cemetery in 2014.

Cemeteries often beget a lyrical tone in the writing that they inspire, as though being deadly serious were the only way to write about death. But an openness to accidental and intentional comedy is key to understanding these places. This encompasses the way in which epitaphs that may once have offered solace may now read like ephemeral ditties. It also explains the outlandish nature of some monuments, such as Jeremy Beadle’s stone bookshelf in Highgate East or, in the same cemetery, how the letters “D E A D” are, as Ross writes, “punched through the block in brute art deco holes” on painter Patrick Caulfield’s tombstone.

Above all, the vital spirit is a human comedy—nothing laugh out loud, and usually not the gallows humour of the gravediggers in Hamlet. Instead, it is an everyday humanity, an acknowledgement of how life continues in the presence of the dead, as so often espoused by the people who maintain and manage graveyards and cemeteries.

That is writ large in A Tomb with a View, in Ross’s encounters with tour guides, local historians, a gardener, a stonecutter, even a recent widow. Some laugh gently in the face of death: like the public engagement manager at Arnos Vale in Bristol, for instance, who relates how a proposal to screen Psycho in the cemetery was turned down. (“Someone else wanted to do a talk on necrophilia—we said no to that as well.”) But mostly they affirm how cemeteries are places we need, can live with and learn from: alive to emotions, experiences, opinions and the possibilities of our own little lives.