Tim Rich: Cemeteries are so stiff

Britain’s dysfunctional cemeteries need major improvements and would benefit greatly from design input. Tim Rich thinks it’s a matter of grave concern

I recently met a “motivation consultant” who asks his students to write the epitaph they would most like on their gravestone, then turns the words into a personal mission statement for them to pursue.

Writing your own epitaph is a lot harder if you are looking into the dark orbs of the Grim Reaper, of course. Harder still if you have actually died, but then the task falls to some poor pen-gripping partner, friend or relative. Churchyards and cemeteries of the world are littered with chocolate box goodbyes, but there are gems of honesty, wit and love to be found too. My favourite is on a gravestone in the US: “Harry Edsel Smith, Born 1913 – Died 1942. Looked up the elevator shaft to see if the car was on the way down. It was.”

Visit one of our great Victorian cemeteries (I recommend Highgate’s less fashionable south London twin, Nunhead) and you’ll find eloquently designed memorials too: Mausoleums, tombs, gravestones, crosses and monuments, each adorned with exquisite lettering and engraving or boasting proud structural expressionism, and all enjoying dank desuetude.

While our national obsession with leaving a perpetual personal monument has created a walk-in archive of popular design tastes, it has also left us with a problem – overcrowded cemeteries. In the 17th century the popularity of permanent memorials increased. By the late 18th century the combination of population explosion and long-leased graves meant many churchyards became full. New cemeteries, located on the verdant fringes of towns, were created. Continental countries adopted the same solution, except their local authorities leased plots for a set period (usually ten-50 years). Here, in a classic case of British short-termism, graves were leased on a perpetual basis.

As our towns developed, so green-belt cemeteries were surrounded by houses. While land values soared, revenue declined in ratio with the reduction in available space for new burials; someone got the business plan for cemeteries wrong. Cremation, legal here since 1884, eased demand, but not enough. Today, once again, many cemeteries have run out of space. Some have already resorted to quietly relocating untended graves (local newspapers are probably rubbing their hands at the prospect of “Local Council Dug Up My Gran” stories).

Lack of revenue has also turned many of our local cemeteries into no-go zones haunted by drunks, addicts and vandals. Gravestones and monuments are regularly riven and defaced, and elderly mourners often fear to be alone in the quiet, with just the dead and the chemically-imbalanced for company. Our cemeteries should be local, sustainable, accessible and safe; major improvements are required to make them so, and new burial spaces are required to ensure they stay that way.

Whatever national and local Government decides to do about this, the design and architectural communities should be engaged. In the first instance, we must ensure that historically important cemeteries are preserved. These areas of outstanding unnatural beauty must not be turned into sites for executive housing or miserable “superstores”.

Second, the best local, national and international talents should be employed to create new cemeteries and transform what we have. A recent memorandum to the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, by Andy Clayden and Dr Jan Woudstra, reveals government is aware of the need for design expertise but confused about how to get it; ” there has been a severe lack of interest of landscape architects in this country, who have traditionally avoided cemetery design as an issue. This can be illustrated by the limited number of publications on the topic, with no books on cemetery design appearing in England since William Robinson’s ‘God’s Acre Beautiful’ published in 1888.” The report cites Enric Miralles’ Igualada cemetery near Barcelona as inspiration; if Westminster is alluding to work like this there is clearly a rich opportunity here for British architects and designers.

The success of woodland burial sites, such as the Colney Wood park in Norfolk, opened last year, might also serve to inspire us. Imagine a well-funded burial centre designed by an architect with vision, peppered with delight by an artist (Andy Goldsworthy, perhaps?), added to by craftsmen and nurtured by local lovers of design and nature: surely a better inheritance for future generations than the dysfunctional council estates of the dead we have now?

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