Susan Buckham 2010

Delusions of grandeur? The influence of civic pride, private sentiment and business practice upon the cemetery landscape at York

This paper offers a case study of burial and commemoration at York Cemetery from 1837 to 1901. The cultural significance of cemeteries is embodied by their design as a specific form of burial landscape and by their use as an arena to express social relationships as signified by the selection of a burial plot, funeral service, memorial and inscription and by visits to the gravesite. York Cemetery’s own unique history was embedded within the nationwide – indeed international – movement to establish modern cemeteries. A study of burial and commemoration patterns reveals that throughout the1900s patronage by the local community together with the York Cemetery Company’s business practices created an unusual level of material harmony and homogeneity within the cemetery landscape.

At York, the archaeological and documentary sources reveal that the deceased’s family or representative could select from a series of possible options at each stage of burial and commemoration. Whilst the cemetery owners ultimately regulated the extent of choices, the selection of a particular burial or commemoration option nonetheless enabled individuals and families to voice affiliations to specific social and familial groupings. Particular attention is paid to the role of religion, class, age and family within burial and commemoration behaviour. In addition, by studying the evidence of gravestones alongside the burial registers it is clear that commemoration could be used to offer an account of social relationships that was in direct conflict with the treatment of the deceased through burial practices. The study concludes by making the case that at York, in contrast to case studies of other cemeteries, private sentiments and familial relationships rather than competitive social display proved more influential to the evolving design, management and use of the site.


The Cemetery Research Group runs two events a year: in May and in November. Follow the links and send in an abstract