Life after death - Museums Association

Life after death

With restored buildings, new interpretation spaces and tailored trails, the grand municipal cemeteries of the 19th century are proving popular places to visit, even at a time of great loss
John Holt
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Spilling down a hillside into the valley below, Glasgow Necropolis took inspiration from Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery. It was one of the UK’s first garden cemeteries when it opened in 1833
Spilling down a hillside into the valley below, Glasgow Necropolis took inspiration from Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery. It was one of the UK’s first garden cemeteries when it opened in 1833 Glasgow Life

Garden cemeteries, originally designed by the Victorians to be landscapes where loved ones could be remembered in the grandest style, are now brimming with new signs of life.

These havens of family plots, flora and fauna are now catering for a new breed of visitor – from goths and grave spotters to nature lovers seeking an oasis of calm and film buffs flocking to spooky screenings of their favourite scary movies.

Arnos Vale Cafe Steps and Spielman Centre Photo by Buffy Jones

“I think there’s been a cultural shift in attitudes towards death,” says Ellie Collier, the CEO of the trust that looks after the 45 acres of magnificently maintained listed parkland at Arnos Vale in Bristol, where around 300,000 people are buried.

The Victorians had a personal connection with mortality that was full of show and status, but death became largely sanitised in the 20th century with people not dying at home as often, and the elderly living their last days in care homes or hospitals, says Collier.

“I think Bristol Museum and Art Gallery’s 2015-16 exhibition, Death: The Human Experience was a turning point as was Disney’s Coco, a children’s film from 2017 that was unflinchingly about dying,” says Collier.

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Arnos Vale is pulling out all the stops to ensure it puts on a show for the local community that saved it from destruction.

“The site was acquired by a property developer in the 1990s who wanted to bulldoze the lot, but people marched on city hall and chained themselves to railings to defeat the plans,” Collier says. “The place became terribly overgrown, but the positive side is that now we effectively have a nature reserve in the heart of the city.”

In pre-pandemic days, exercise, wellbeing and yoga classes were held in the great outdoors and two former chapels were available to hire for business meetings, cinema screenings and live performances. Gothic weddings, Valentine’s Day and Halloween-themed experiences brought in the crowds, and events, such as the Life, Death and the Rest festival, ensured Arnos Vale provided a green and safe space for philosophical debate about mortality. A gift shop was also stocked with a variety of tasteful souvenirs.

Arnos Vale in Bristol provides a green and safe space for philosophical debate about mortality Arnos Vale Cemetery

“I always look at our entire audience as two ends of a spectrum, the one that likes skulls and the other that favours angels,” says Collier, who adds that Arnos Vale has suffered terribly through the pandemic. “We have to generate 75% of our income. We became more entrepreneurial as the heritage sector encourages and, pre-Covid, we had 54 different income streams. During the first lockdown, we were down to four.”

One pandemic positive, however, was the renewed outpourings of love from local people. “We receive so many messages saying how important we are in such difficult times,” Collier says.

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“They visit us as if we were a park; there are kids on scooters, families and new parents. They don’t see graves. They just recognise a lovely place in which they can feel safe.”

Family histories

High on a hill overlooking the centre of Sheffield, the city’s General Cemetery is now a conservation area, local nature reserve and a Grade II-listed landscape on the English Heritage National Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. It is also a burial ground of two distinct halves.

One of the first commercially run cemeteries in the UK, it was built into the side of a quarry by a group of non-conformist businessmen in 1836, with an area for Anglican burials added a decade later. Five years ago, the cemetery trust secured funding to turn the old non-conformist chapel – named after its designer, Samuel Worth – into an award-winning venue for weddings, parties, concerts and other events.

Sheffield’s General Cemetery is now a conservation area and local nature reserve

“When the cemetery closed for burials in the 1970s, the consecrated Anglican site became a neglected and dangerous eyesore, so the council removed the gravestones and now it’s nice parkland that’s popular with students,” says trustee and volunteer Hilary McAra. “The two areas were separated by a three-foot high boundary known as the ‘Dissenters’ Wall’, which can still be seen in parts of the cemetery.”

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The trust has a record of all 87,000 burials in the cemetery, an invaluable resource that reveals much about the history of the people of Sheffield. It means the many visitors researching family histories can see memorial inscriptions to loved ones should a grave have disappeared.

“We are seeing many older people who know they had a stillborn brother or sister who died young,” McAra says. “They may never have talked about it in the family before, but they want to find the resting place of someone they never knew, and we are able to do just that.

“Those early records were huge books completed in pencil, a fascinating account of people and how they died,” McAra says. “There was lots of disease, cases of water on the brain and senility and accidents such as the lady whose crinoline became entangled in a machine.”

The tombs at the General Cemetery include Mark Firth, a steel maker, former city mayor and founder of what became the University of Sheffield, and George Bassett, the sweet baron who gave Liquorice Allsorts to the world.

Many of the bigger memorials, plus fixtures and fittings in stone, iron and steel, feature Egyptian iconography, which was a popular feature of the Victorian death cult.

“Alongside nature and architecture tours, one of our younger volunteers has also put together a ‘transcendental trail’ that traces life and death through the memento mori and Egyptian sun discs and cobras dotted around the cemetery,” McAra says.

Brompton’s atmospheric setting has been the backdrop to numerous films and TV shows

Nineteenth-century London needed multiple private cemeteries dotted around its outskirts to prevent the epidemics caused by overflowing churchyards depositing their contents into local rivers. These impressive sites are now known in funerary circles as “The Magnificent Seven” and comprise cemeteries in Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Stoke Newington, Brompton, Nunhead and Tower Hamlets.

Compared with Highgate, where visitors beat a path to the grave of Karl Marx and other assorted firebrands, Brompton Cemetery is an understated gem in the heart of Kensington and Chelsea. Many visitors simply use it as a short cut without stopping to admire the domed chapel and colonnades modelled on St Peter’s in Rome.

Graveyard shift

Brompton’s considerable charms are not lost on television and film directors. Productions that have been filmed there include Doctor Who and the Bond film Goldeneye, for which the architecture stood in for St Petersburg.

“They come with massive vehicles, miles of cables and cranes and industrial catering vans and put up amusing notices telling people not to be alarmed by fake firearms,” says trustee Robert Stephenson, who adds that Brompton is still open for burials and is lovingly cared-for due to the fact it is now managed by the Royal Parks.

A recent restoration programme saw the north lodge transformed into an information centre and a cafe decorated with references to famous cemetery residents.

Grave spotters can have a field day searching for the final resting places of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst; John Wisden of cricketing almanack fame; Henry Cole, who helped set up the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Albert Hall, Imperial College and the Royal Colleges of Music and Art; and art-loving shipbuilder Frederick Leyland, whose unique tomb-on-legs was designed by the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward  Burne-Jones. Brompton also boasts some delightful myths and legends.

Brompton Cemetery has a cafe that is decorated with references to famous cemetery residents

“Before leaving for a sheep farm in the Lake District, the writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter lived locally for almost half a century and she is rumoured to have taken the names for some of her characters from cemetery gravestones,” Stephenson says. “We do not openly contradict the story, but I think it’s unlikely. Our strongest argument is that Brompton could well be the inspiration for Mr McGregor’s walled garden.”

Meanwhile, with its hieroglyphics and pyramid, the Courtoy Mausoleum is almost a film script in stone with a very surprising secret.

“Hannah Courtoy badgered her rich husband to leave all his money to her,” Stephenson says. “He was French and may have been a banker to some aristocrat. When they got their heads cut off, she came to this country with the proceeds.”

Enter a mysterious inventor of naval weaponry, Samuel Warner, who is reputed to have constructed a working time machine in
the mausoleum with the help of Joseph Bonomi, a well-known sculptor and Egyptologist.

“It’s a lovely idea,” says a less-than-convinced Stephenson whose regular talks and tours have earned him the nickname, “Dr Death”.

“In no way do I find cemeteries fearful,” he says. “To me, they are the countryside come to town. If they are overgrown, monuments stick out of the ivy and are full of promise, like a lost civilisation found in the jungle.”

The Glasgow Necropolis has trees, seating areas and walking routesGlasgow Life

Spilling down a hillside into the valley below, the Glasgow Necropolis took inspiration from Paris’s Père Lachaise to become one of the UK’s first garden cemeteries when it opened in 1833.

“The land had been bought years before by a group of Glasgow businessmen who then couldn’t think of a use for it,” says Ruth Johnston, the chair of the Friends group. “One of them, however, was a wine merchant who, on a business trip to Paris, saw Père Lachaise with its trees, seating areas and walking routes.

“He realised the Glasgow plot was the ideal location for a similarly safe, more hygienic cemetery just across the old Molendinar Burn from the cathedral and its medieval graveyard.”

The contrast between these two final resting places could not have been starker. “In addition to the smell and miasma, the cathedral’s medieval graves were designed to put the fear of death into you,” says Johnston. “In contrast, walk across our Victorian ‘Bridge of Sighs’ and you will find yourself inspired by beautiful parkland and sculpture.”

Wild things

More recent embellishments include a wildflower meadow, while the cemetery’s wooded areas and slopes are home to wildlife including pipistrelle bats, rare moths and spiders. The Friends group researches the stories of many of the 30,000 people buried among the jagged forest of monuments.

“We are restoring three memorials to nurses from the adjacent Glasgow Royal Infirmary and studying their stories, which we consider to be a fitting tribute to the magnificent work of the NHS during the pandemic,” Johnston says.

As a young archaeology undergraduate, Alison Taylor was inspired by the writings of philologist Walter Skeat and his pioneering work in place-name studies in the 19th century.

Now, as president of the Friends of the Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge, she helps look after his grave, as well as those of the other residents of what has been called the churchyard with the highest IQ in the world.

“Skeat is buried in a lovely plot with intricate Anglo-Saxon patterns and carvings,” Taylor says. “The gravestones here mostly celebrate the work or career of the person; there’s little family stuff or religious phraseology.

Ascension Burial Ground in Cambridge is dubbed the churchyard with the highest IQ in the world

“We are constantly clearing graves to find out who is here while managing a site that has wildlife at its centre. There are at least 2,000 flower species because the burial ground was formed in 1857 on arable land so it has never had pesticides used on it.

“We often have foxes wandering through and people come bird-watching, particularly for the kestrels,” Taylor says. “Badgers are a nuisance, though, as they dig deep holes, which can be a bit alarming in an old graveyard.”

Ascension, which is off the beaten track and includes a former chapel now used as a stone mason’s workshop, has its share of sad stories.

“We have more than 50 babies buried under marbled slabs which we traced to a former American Air Force hospital that had a maternity wing in the 1950s,” Taylor says. “They were all a few days old and died during the 1957 Asian flu pandemic as the US fought the Korean war.”

Visitors are predominantly pilgrims seeking the graves of the university’s Nobel prize-winning scientists, classicists and philosophers, explorers, authors and astrophysicists.

The resting place of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is rather plain, but it attracts a great deal of attention. “It’s quite extraordinary how people leave little offerings on the simple stone – flowers, coins and pens, train tickets and other ephemera,” says Taylor.

Among the other notables are John Cockcroft, who split the atom in 1932, and Arthur Eddington whose observations of a solar eclipse confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

“There are countless people here who were eminent in their day but are rather forgotten now,” says Taylor. “People like anthropologist James Frazer, who wrote The Golden Bough, a comparative study of worldwide mythologies and religions. He was one of those academics who got away with living in college while refusing to talk to students, let alone teach them.”

And surprises continue to be unearthed at Ascension. “A while ago, I heard a piece on the radio about the economist Frank Ramsey who packed a lot into a life that ended when he was just 26,” Taylor says. “I looked him up and discovered he’s buried in the yard.”

John Holt is a freelance writer

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