Until I left home at 18, I looked out of my bedroom window over to Handsworth Cemetery. I had four great-grandparents and a grandmother already in there before I was born. As a family, we took the short walk to Grandma’s grave most Sundays.
Old Mrs Jefferson who lived five houses up the road could be seen early most summer Saturday mornings walking to the cemetery gate with her gun that was as long as she was tall. If we were lucky the street ate rabbit for dinner that day.
In the late sixties, rumours of Halloween began to echo in the heads of pre-teens, we debated a trip to the cemetery after dark on the big night. It never happened, we just sat outside on sunny days and recorded car registration numbers.
When I was eleven, I got a dog. She and I explored every inch of that cemetery together. A few years later I got interested in photography; I took my camera to the cemetery, always keen to be the first in after a fall of snow.
I grew up, left home and eventually the family died, or moved away and died. My mother and grandfather were buried in Grandma’s grave, as later were my father’s ashes. I now own the Rights to the grave which Birmingham City Council tell me is full. They don’t know who they’re dealing with. The family paid 12/8 (63p) for the grave in perpetuity in 1938. I visit before every trip to the nearby Hawthorns, or when work takes me down the top end of the M5.
I left, I emigrated. Then I came back. I took a temporary position managing a grounds maintenance contract for the local council in Devon which included two town cemeteries. I was far from Handsworth Cemetery so couldn’t look after it or my family, but I could look after these. Cue ongoing twenty three year career in cemetery management.
I’ve spent most of that time professionally either berating people to cherish their cemeteries or helping those that run them do their best job. I’m blessed to remain in a position to do both.
I guess most people who’ve made it this far are involved in a concern with some links to cemeteries or the care of the bereaved. We know what these spaces mean to those who have invested their family to your care; we have ourselves invested. The value of the cemetery in environmental, spiritual and well-being terms is hugely underestimated. Cemeteries are also our workspaces, stonemasons’ showrooms, sextons’ pride, funeral directors’ stages. They are our cultural and historical legacy. They all need legal protection. Their management needs scrutiny.
So why is this part of human experience so ignored by the legislature? The brief flurry of Burial Acts of the mid nineteenth century were themselves 30 years too late, and as I said, brief. Our last review was 34 years ago. At that time, the private sector was getting a bad name. Private cemeteries were full, owners were locking the gates and retiring somewhere comfortable. The cemeteries became overgrown, trees grew, headstones toppled over. They became dangerous environments, often attracting similarly dangerous people. Highgate is the well-known example but there are many more; Arnos Vale in Bristol; Bath Abbey; Bethnal Green, Score Wood in Ilfracombe, the list is endless. The ‘lucky’ few were immediately dumped onto the local authority, with of course, no funding. Many of the rest, including those I’ve mentioned, attracted community attention and Cemetery Friends groups were formed, often with amazing outcomes. We can’t depend on this happening however.
From the nineties onwards, we have had the expansion of the private natural burial ground sector. Much advice and guidance has been given to ensure that these sites will remain viable after all burial space and therefore income ceases. A few years back I chaired an ICCM committee that launched a Charter for those choosing natural burial and later the ICCM Diploma course in natural burial ground management. This was an attempt to put natural burial grounds on the same level as all other cemeteries.
You can lead a horse to water, however. I believe what is need is Government overview; something akin to the Scottish Government’s inspector of crematoria. Their brief should include all places where people have been buried that have not yet become of an age where they sit more happily with archaeologists, certainly all of those where people have been buried in living memory.
The other side to this is my impending decision as to what to put in my will regarding the family grave. It remains meaningful to me as I knew three of the inhabitants, my children will only remember one. Should I have a defensive funeral and be buried there myself to maintain their interest? At what point does an important family focal point become a liability?
I’m at that time in my life where I have to make these decisions. Cremation or burial, scatter somewhere significant or have a grave with or without a memorial? Plans have to be made, the ‘expressing a desire’ phase of life. My children need to know. Do I maintain a distant sacred space, or do I create a new one?
When I look out of my bedroom window now, in the mid distance I can see the top of the huge London Plane under which I have made plans to be buried; over which a monolithic slab of Delabole slate would be elaborately tattooed by the best hand carver in the region. Opposite would be the Yew tree my wife, kids and I will have planted as well as a bench for chums to come and rest awhile. I’m happier that this cemetery continues to be well maintained whereas Handsworth has not been at its best for many decades. It’s also relevant to our current location.