Julie Rugg 2010

University of York, UK

The cemetery in the countryside: continuity and modernity

Theoretical debate on cemeteries generally relates to one of two discourses: that cemeteries demonstrated the hold of middle-class ideals on the construction of urban environments, where even in the realms of death the expression of status and class were a central concern; and that the cemetery was essentially a modern phenomenon that displaced and marginalized the dead, so reflecting a profound societal unease with evidence of mortality. These models position the cemetery very firmly in the context of the nineteenth-century city, where rapid population growth led to a dislocation of traditional burial practices. In the case of England, during the nineteenth century the hold of the Church on the spaces of death was challenged: by law, intramural churchyards could be closed to new interments. The sacred space of the churchyard was usurped by secularised cemetery space: in this physically distant and professionally-managed locale, activity was governed by scientific principles. This paper argues that these discourses are simplistic, and tend to reflect the opposition of one stereotype with another. Churchyards constituted highly politicized space, where economic issues could be central and where social marginalization was routine. Evidence of an abrupt ‘dislocation’ is questionable. In the ‘modern’ period, the use of churchyards has continued, and remains commonplace. Furthermore, cemeteries did not necessarily undermine the role of the Church. In the 1850s, new burial legislation required that such sites should be at least part-consecrated. Apportioned land within the vast majority of cemeteries came under the control of diocesan authorities: such space was to be regarded as the parish burial ground, and remained the freehold of the local vicar. This paper questions the notion of a dichotomized distinction between the ‘modern’ cemetery and ‘traditional’ churchyard by reviewing data relating to the history of the cemetery in the countryside.


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