Page last updated at 19:45 GMT, Thursday, 9 October 2008 20:45 UK

Crisis over graveyard maintenance

Robert Pigott
Religious Affairs Correspondent

Headstones in a graveyard
Many headstones are suffering the effects of weathering

A conference is taking place to discuss what is described as a crisis in the maintenance of graveyards.

English Heritage says that Britain has the world's best graveyard heritage, but gravestones are deteriorating through weathering and vandalism.

The meeting in Oxford will discuss how the neglect of the sites also threatens the rich social history they contain.

English Heritage hopes renewed public interest in genealogy will improve conservation efforts in cemeteries.

Dramatic histories

Britain has thousands of parish churches with graveyards dating back to Medieval times.

So many people have been buried and slowly decayed in churchyards that they are often conspicuously higher than surrounding ground.

Collections of stone monuments and gravestones have been built up over the centuries, often bearing fascinating inscriptions.

There are distinctive motifs - such as skulls and crossbones, shrouded urns and upturned torches - indicating developing approaches to death down the centuries.

Many churchyards and burial grounds have dramatic histories of their own. Some rural churchyards have remained little touched for more than a thousand years.

Tombstones. Picture: Friends of St George's Gardens
The tombstones in St George's Gardens in Bloomsbury are cared for

St Sexburga's churchyard in the Isle of Sheppey dates from the 7th Century - and visitors have described it as a spot with a special atmosphere.

Among notable city graveyards is St George's Gardens in central London. It was acquired in 1713 as an overflow plot for two London parishes.

Thousands of people were to be buried in a space of about a hectare over a period of about a century, and included people executed for taking part in the Jacobite Rebellion and a notorious London poisoner.

Overcrowding led to the graveyard being closed, and it has since been cleared of many of its tombstones and memorials.

St George's Gardens have become one of the best tended burial grounds, but many others are deteriorating rapidly.

Cremation

Among the issues being discussed in Oxford on Thursday are the particular challenges of tending the great Victorian cemeteries where people were commemorated with ornate and often massive monuments, and the effects of mould and moss on gravestones.

One of the experts in Oxford, Ian Hussein of the City of London Cemetery, has been pioneering the rejuvenation of old cemeteries, by reusing them.

Although some 70% of Britons choose to be cremated, there is nevertheless growing pressure on limited burial space, and old cemeteries that have long since been filled no longer attract relatives to the graves and are starting to lack even their visitors.

There are plans to dig up remains in the oldest graves at the City of London Cemetery, and rebury them deeper in the ground, before using the space above for new burials.

That way, Ian Hussein argues, a carefully tended place will regain its usefulness to the public.


SEE ALSO
New life breathed into graveyard
18 Jul 08 |  Tayside and Central
Cash boost for historic cemetery
03 Mar 06 |  West Yorkshire
Bid to save historic graveyards
19 Nov 01 |  Scotland

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