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What future for historic cemeteries?
This quarter, Judith Roberts looks at initiatives to ensure
a future for an increasingly neglected aspect of our past.
The cry “de cimitire, pas de cit”, “Without a cemetery, there is no city”, which rallied the Paris population of 1869 to oppose the removal of bodies to newly created cemeteries nineteen miles from the city, is echoed by Ken Warpole’s in Comedia’s latest report, The cem etery and the city. The report follows on from Comedia Demos’s work on public parks, Parklife: urban parks and social renewal and reassesses the importance of the cemetery in the social and the physical fabric of urban life.
The cemetery and the city is a modest but thoughtful report which takes an overview of the crisis facing many local authorities in managing cern-
eteries and memorial gardens and sets out guidelines as a framework for decision making and management in the future. In a sense, Comedia’s report picks up the themes of Julie Dunk and Julie Rugg’s work in The management of old cemetery land, now and the future which outlines the great contribution made by cemetery space in general and historic cemeteries in particular to the amenity of cities and to the sense of space.
Approaches to maintenance and management in the past and opportunities for conservation in the present are closely related and in many ways historic cemeteries face many of the
management problems and characteristics of decline now being tackled in public parks, although cemeteries also have their own, unique problems.
Some of the 19th century cemeteries are stunning creations, intricately landscaped and covering hundreds of acres. A number of such sites, Brookwood in Surrey, Amos Vale in Bristol, for example, as well as Highgate and Kensal Green are already on English Heritage’s Register of Historic Parks and Gardens and the list is expanding.
Awareness of the historic and ecological value of cemeteries is growing and many are now supported by Friends’ Associations but the conservation problem is a complex as well as a costly one and calls for an integration of approaches to landscape, nature and building conservation as well as co-operation between responsible authorities and local amenity groups.
Both the reports mentioned above are concerned with a wide range of cemetery types, not simply the recognisably historic ones. However, it is the older ones, or the historic cores of larger cemeteries, the sites which are most likely to be considered for inclusion on The Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, which are of interest here and which face problems characteristic of the wider groups.
There was a huge increase in cemetery provision from the early 19th century in response to population increase and the need to tackle the problems of hygiene and sanitation which followed rapid urban expansion. Many of the earlier cemeteries were commercial concerns funded by joint-stock ventures which created, ironically, one of the core problems now being faced; commercial yen-
Gazebo
Funerary monuments at Lawnswood Cemetery, Leeds
The various sections of the cemetery are divided by curving paths with the graves arranged along the edge of the paths and the inner spaces slightly raises to give the impression of ‘islands’ which also divided each of the sections of the cemetery visually from the others.
Context 55 September 1997
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