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Burial Grounds versus Public Parks

Today's taphophiles and family historians often enjoy the calm and greenery of urban cemeteries. But would today's cemetery users want to return to a Victorian policy that sought to convert burial grounds into public parks?
The Hardy Tree in the grounds of St Pancras Old Church
In the 1860s, the graves of the ancient parish churchyard of St Pancras were cleared. Among those who helped clear and relocate burials from the old St Pancras Church graveyard to the new St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, was a young Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).  A famous tree still stands in the old graveyard which bears his name. Some of the church lands was taken by the Midland Railway. During this period, around 8,000 bodies were exhumed from their burial plots and some were relocated to the new cemetery in Finchley. Some headstones, like that of the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1759-1797) were left standing and can still be seen in the churchyard today. Wollstonecraft's body has since been relocated to Bournemouth in Dorset. 

After the removal of graves, the grounds were then laid out with paths, trees, and benches. Thus, the cemetery was turned into a park. Another term for these Victorian graves-turned-parks is, "urban healtheries".

Records from both the old churchyard and the new cemetery can be searched on the Deceased Online database.

Image from the database showing the records of the first burials at St Pancras and Islington Cemetery
As the century progressed, more disused burial grounds and cemeteries were converted into gardens and leisure spaces, particularly in East London. Philanthropists and others who promoted the conversion were motivated by a desire to improve the physical and moral health of the urban poor.  

Key among these philanthropists was Reginald Brabazon, 12th Earl of Meath, (31 July 1841 – 11 October 1929) was a British politician and philanthropist. It was Brabazon who described the converted graveyards of late 19th century East London as healtheries. The creator of Empire Day, Brabazon was the first chairman of both the London County Council Parks Committee and the Metropolitan Gardens Association. 
The Earl of Meath photographed in 1908 (Wikimedia Commons) 
Despite the enthusiasm of reformers like Brabazon, some London cemeteries have long held out from being turned into formal parks. Nevertheless, some, such as Highgate and Brompton cemeteries are laid out a little like parks, with paths, trees, and benches. In fact, sitting in these cemeteries can feel like being in a park - albeit one with headstones and funerary monuments. Visiting cemeteries is certainly a popular leisure activity: Highgate Cemetery, for example, recorded 89,433 visitors in 2017.

The memorial to sculptor, Anna Mahler (1904-1988) stands among trees 
For many family historians and cemetery visitors, burial grounds are not solely places for peace and reflection. They are designed for remembrance, and to allow relatives and friends to connect with their deceased love ones. Cemetery trusts and committees continue to try and to meet the wishes of all users in order to maintain this important balance.

Do you have strong views on whether a cemetery should be more or less like a park? Are you pleased that some urban sites were cleared of graves in the 19th century? Let us know by sharing your opinions in the Comments Box below or on our Twitter and Facebook pages.

Tim Brown, "The making of urban ‘healtheries’: the transformation of cemeteries and burial grounds in late-Victorian East London", Journal of Historical GeographyVolume 42, October 2013, Pages 12-23; Science Direct accessed 17 July 2018.


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