Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

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 less.

  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 cremation—are 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 itself—all now largely in the hands of the private sector—rather 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 death—in the midst of life—has 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 cemetery—at 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 deaths—one of a child who fell into a canal, and the other of a schoolboy who died from stab wounds after a bus stop fracas—have 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 city

  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 identity—why 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 aesthetics—but 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 with—and regulation of—the 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 fabric—especially 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 cemeteries.

  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.

December 2000

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