Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Memoranda

Memorandum by the Garden History Society (CEM 72)

  1.  The Garden History Society is the national amenity society for the study and protection of historic parks and gardens. It is a statutory consultee on planning applications affecting sites on the English Heritage Register of parks and gardens of special historic interest, which includes cemeteries. PPG15 states that the Society "has more experience of dealing with planning applications affecting parks and gardens then any other body" (paragraph A16).


  2.  Cemeteries have an important place in the history of British gardening and landscape design. Along with parks and hospital grounds they are one of the three great innovations in public landscape of the nineteenth century. In their present maturity, and despite their often lamentable condition, they add immeasurably to the urban landscape: the huge range of stone memorials from simple crosses to statuary and mausolea, the richness of the structural planting and the mature trees, the intricate and often subtle layout of drives and paths, the elaborate mortuary chapels, the boundary walls and railings, lodges and gateways, still constitute designed landscapes of striking power and beauty.

  3.  The design principles stem directly from garden design, with the great horticultural theorist, John Claudius Loudon, playing a fundamental role in promoting a design aesthetic and rationale in his book On the Laying out, Planting and Management of Cemeteries (1843). Loudon's stress on a geometric, grid-pattern layout was not especially influential: most subsequent cemeteries continued to favour at least an element of informal design. But the book, grounded in pragmatic questions of hygiene for expanding conurbations, epitomised the unity of Victorian ideas on beauty, utility and "morals", and the importance which was laid on cemeteries as part of what we would now call the public realm.

  4.  Nineteenth-century thinking on cemeteries developed in response to the chronic problem of over-crowding in existing, inner-city burial grounds, and the threat to health that posed. The way was led by Paris, which in 1804 banned churchyard burials and in the same year purchased land to the east of the city to lay out the cemetery of Pe"re Lachaise.

  5.  In England, cemeteries began to be developed during the 1820s and 30s, much influenced by the English landscape style of parkland design. The purest example of this is probably Norwood Cemetery in London (1837), while Kensal Green included additional formal features such as avenues. Some new cemeteries—again influenced by garden design—exploited naturally dramatic topography to create landscape interest, such as St James's in Liverpool which was laid out in an abandoned quarry (1829), the Glasgow Necropolis on a steeply sloping hilltop site (1831) or Highgate in London where the steep banks accommodated catacombs and necessitated picturesquely curving drives (1839). Under the influence of Loudon and changing tastes in garden design, mid-nineteenth-century layouts became notably more formal such as Joseph Paxton's London Road Cemetery in Coventry (1847) with its formal terrace. In the later part of the century, cemetery design tended to combine formal and informal elements.

  6.  Underlying these various trends however was the common belief that cemeteries should be high-quality designed landscapes, reflecting not only Victorian ideals of death and remembrance, but also the belief that they were an essential part of the civic realm of towns and cities; that, like parks, they reflected on towns' healthiness, prosperity, and civic pride.

  7.  Loudon promoted the idea of combining disposal of the dead with horticultural, and particularly arboricultural, interest, championing the notion of a "garden cemetery" which he took from the Necropolis Glasguensis of John Strang (1831). Abney Park Cemetery in London, planted by the leading nurseryman, George Loddiges, in 1840, exemplifies the doubling-up of a cemetery with an arboretum approved of by Loudon: he cites Abney Park as an example of his nostrum that,

    "a general cemetery in the neighbourhood of a town, properly designed, laid out, ornamented with tombs, planted with trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, all named, and the whole properly kept, might become a school of instruction in architecture, sculpture, landscape-gardening, arboriculture, botany, and in those important parts of general gardening, neatness, order and high keeping" (Cemeteries, p13)

  For many urban dwellers in the period up to the 1850s, when the park movement began to gather momentum, cemeteries were the only available green space available for relaxation and fresh air.


  8.  The importance of cemeteries in garden history is recognised to some extent by English Heritage. At present, 22 cemeteries are included on the national Register, while recent research has we gather identified 22 more for consideration. However, a 1994 theme Study for EH by the leading authority on cemeteries, Dr Chris Brooks, suggested that of a national resource of roughly 2,250 cemeteries, probably about 300 could be registered, in whole or in part. His study further submitted descriptions of 56 sites for inclusion, of which only a handful (which he recommended be upgraded) were on the original Register. Of these, 15 were recommended for inclusion or upgrading to Grade I, 17 Grade II* and 24 Grade II. Dr Brooks also recommended that a national survey be undertaken to identify these cemeteries in the national stock which are historically and aesthetically important, to provide historical information on them, to compile a basic photographic record and to make recommendations for registration, Conservation Area-designation, or (building) listing.

  9.  It is disappointing to see how little progress has been made by English Heritage in implementing Dr Brooks' recommendations. There has been no national survey and omissions from the Register currently include 2 of his recommendations for Grade I, 16 of his Grade II*s and 19 of his Grade IIs. At present, there are no Grade I registered cemeteries and only 6 Grade II*. As English Heritage is not a statutory consultee on Grade II registered parks and gardens, its input on threats posed by planning applications to cemeteries is thus limited to a mere half-dozen sites. In our opinion, this represents an inadequate and inaccurate reflection of the historic interest of cemeteries. As it is now doing in the case of urban parks, English Heritage urgently needs to rectify this under-representation of a major national resource through a positive and specific programme of cemetery survey, assessment and registration.

  10.  Apart from the question of national historic importance, cemeteries are a unique part of the local heritage. Their monuments and archives represent an irreplaceable resource for family and local historians, and they have immense and largely (although some authorities and Friends groups as in Sheffield have produced schools packs) untapped educational value; they reflect the demography and development of our great towns and cities; they are landmarks which contribute to local distinctiveness and cultural identity, and they are often an invaluable part of the local natural heritage, preserving as they do oasis-sites in generally highly developed areas of towns and cities.

  11.  Above all, working cemeteries—and most Victorian cemeteries are still open—are a living heritage, embodying a continuum with the past, by virtue of still being used for burials. The quality of death is an integral part of the quality of life and poorly maintained cemeteries have a detrimental effect on the latter.

  12.  The Heritage Lottery fund has grant-aided restoration plans or repairs to a small number of churchyards and cemeteries (approximately fifteen), closed and open. However, only a handful are to non-denominational cemeteries: Mansfield Cemetery, Nunhead, Hampstead, Brompton, Highgate, St Pancras. Others are to Jewish cemeteries (Kingsbury Road, Islington and Whitstable Road, Canterbury) converted burial grounds converted to gardens (Greyfriars, Perth), churchyards (St Mary's Haringey, St Dunstan's and All Saints' Tower Hamlets) or memorial gardens (Stoke Poges). We believe that the Heritage Lottery Fund should consider how is might increase the number of cemetery projects it is funding and how to achieve a better geographical spread.

  13.  The environmental, historical and cultural significance of cemeteries is poorly reflected in local strategies and policies. A number—such as Key Hill in Birmingham or Arnos Vale in Bristol—have been designated Conservation Areas in recognition of this local historic interest. However, in general there is a dearth of local initiatives recognising this importance. We have not seen them addressed in any Cultural Strategies, and they receive only occasional reference in Parks and Open Spaces Strategies; at best they are the subject of a separate strategy on burial provision. It is essential to recognise their local cultural importance, as physical components of the urban landscape, as repositories of collective memory and civic identity, and for the role that death rituals play in the spiritual quality of life of our towns and cities. Alan Ruff has said of public parks, and it is true of cemeteries: "They were and remain statements of how we see ourselves as a society". We believe that the historical and cultural importance of cemeteries needs to be recognised by local authorities and addressed at a strategic level, for example in Local Cultural Strategies or the public realm strategies recommended in the Urban Task Force report, and that local authorities also need actively to promote their long-term conservation at a strategic level.

  14.  In a way that would have disappointed Loudon, cemeteries are today not seen as fundamentally fulfilling the same role as public parks, botanic gardens or arboreta, in terms of the civic realm of a civilised city, a concept epitomised by Robinet in his 1869 Paris sans Cimetie"re: "Without a cemetery, there is no city". Indeed it is notable that cemeteries are not referred to as part of "the public realm" in the Urban Task Force's Towards an Urban Renaissance (1999); nor do they appear to receive a mention in the Urban White Paper. This represents a significant failure in strategic thinking about the public realm and urban policy generally. We hope that this inquiry will represent a major step in reinstating cemeteries in understanding and discussion of the public realm.


  15.  Occasionally well-maintained cemeteries only serve to highlight the appalling condition of the many. Registered cemeteries such as Arnos Vale are often in no better condition than un-registered sites. As in parks, there is an urgent need to repair the basic infrastructure of boundaries, entrances, circulation routes and tree-planting.

  16.  The condition of monuments is a separate consideration and in many ways a yet more difficult challenge. Many have been demolished on safety grounds or removed wholesale where areas of cemeteries have been converted to lawn. It is arguable that under the present system, where the ownership of a monument stays with a family which may long ago have severed all connection with a cemetery, maintenance of all monuments is simply unsustainable. However, allowing monuments to fall into poor condition ad hoc, rather than repairing them on a strategic basis, is unacceptable and represents a major threat to the national and local heritage.

  17.  Cemeteries have suffered as a result of the same trends in local authority organisation and funding that have so damaged urban parks. Local government reorganisation, compulsory competitive tendering and increased central government control on spending, have all resulted in lowered status, fragmented management structures and cuts in budgets.

  18.  The problem of maintenance and repair is hampered by the provisions under which local authorities are responsible for the safety of monuments in cemeteries but are not owners of those monuments. Local authorities' public liability in the case of accidents makes demolition or utilitarian repair of monuments more likely.

  19.  While many cemeteries are benefiting from input from the voluntary sector, it is reasonable for communities to expect good quality maintenance and management to be provided as a service by the local authority. It would not be reasonable to look to the voluntary sector, or indeed the commercial sector, for broad-brush solutions to the current problems.

  20.  The poor condition of cemeteries rules many of them out as areas for public amenity: it is difficult to determine to what extent their abandonment as places for quiet enjoyment is due also to a cultural shift in attitudes towards mortality, but we suggest that their condition has played a large part in discouraging this sort of use, which is not only legitimate but positive. Indeed, the condition of cemeteries represents a deplorable wasted resource in terms of urban greenspace.


  21.  Cemeteries have one great advantage over public parks: the generation of income is integral to their function. In a way that would not be feasible for public parks, there is the possibility of maintaining the special character of cemeteries and their cultural importance, while making cemetery services financially self-supporting. This would depend on setting fees at a realistic level. We believe that this potential makes well-managed, sustainable cemeteries an exciting and realistic prospect for the future. The committee should consider the question of charges and in particular setting charges at a level which allows for sustainable long-term management of a cemetery.

  22.  English Heritage should consider grant-aiding the restoration of a Grade II* cemetery as a pilot study.

  23.  The Heritage Lottery Fund should consider actively promoting grants to cemeteries, registered and unregistered.


  24.  There is a need for authoritative policy advice from central government on the management and provision of cemetery services. In order for this advice to be well-grounded, there is a need for basic data-collection: the information deficit identified in the case of public parks also hampers the formulation of policy on cemeteries. We believe that the Government needs to address this information deficit as a matter of urgency.

  25.  The Institute of Burial and Cremation Administration's Charter for the Bereaved (1996) is a landmark and excellent document, produced by the professional body for cemetery professionals. However, the Government needs to play its part in addressing the significant variation in standards of cemetery management across the country. Good policy advice would help but given the fundamental importance of burial provision and its woeful under-resourcing at local level, we believe there is also a strong case for the formation of an independent inspectorate to drive up standards where management is currently poor. We believe that the Government needs to address the lack of national standards as a matter or urgency, and the case for an independent inspectorate as the most effective way to remedy that lack.

  26.  The London Planning Advisory Committee (LPAC) produced a well-researched statement on burial provision in London (Planning for Burial Space in London, 1997) which clearly identified re-use of burial space as the key to sustainable management of cemeteries. The notion of the grave as an eternal resting place is a fairly recent cultural construct, dating from the nineteenth century; in other European countries it is not current. There has been thorough research on public attitudes towards re-use (Douglas Davies and Alastair Shaw, Reusing Old Graves: a report on popular British attitudes, 1995), which concludes that there is widespread public support for the principle of reuse.

  27.  We believe that from the point of view of the historic and landscape interest of cemeteries, re-use need not have a detrimental impact. On the contrary, use is fundamental to maintenance and we believe that with sensitive detailing the re-use of monuments would safeguard their future. From that point of view, it would be necessary to introduce strong safeguards for monuments of architectural or historic value, and for the landscape character of a cemetery, but that would not interfere with the principle of re-use. Clearly, the re-use of graves is a sensitive matter and also would require legislation, but we believe that it is time that the issue of re-use was fully considered by Government. We would request that the Committee explore this key issue during its inquiry, and we would support a recommendation to Government that it issue a consultation document on changing the law to enable reuse.

  In conclusion, we welcome this inquiry. We trust that it will recognise the historic and cultural importance of cemetery landscapes: it is a major opportunity, long overdue, to explore the reasons for their present problems and identify ways to redress them.

December 2000

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