ASDS Online Seminar Series, Winter 2022: ‘Public engagement in historic cemeteries’ – February 8th 2022.
The Association for Study of Death and Society (ASDS) Seminar Series is an opportunity to present, engage with and learn about research in the field of Death Studies and related areas.@asds_death
A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of ‘attending’ the latest seminar in the Association for the Study of Death and Society’s winter series, which was a talk by Janine Marriott titled ‘Public engagement in historic cemeteries’.
Although my current research focuses on small, private, and personal objects of mourning and memorialising from the 19th century, I have an absolute fascination with the grand Victorian garden cemeteries. My last (pre-pandemic) trip to London included a visit to two such sites, so, naturally, I was keen to hear Janine, who is the Public Engagement Manager for Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, discuss these amazing heritage spaces.
‘In the UK and Ireland, historic cemeteries are increasingly joining the ranks of sites that people visit for leisure, entertainment, and tourism. As traditional burial places many historic cemeteries have been neglected and abandoned as they fail economically. To ensure their survival a few historic cemeteries are now offering a diverse range of experiences for visitors including tours, talks, film, theatre, dance, arts and crafts, exercise classes and exhibitions.ASDS Seminar Series
The paper started with an overview of Thanatourism, often referred to as ‘death tourism’ or ‘dark tourism’, and a brief tracing of its long history before moving on to an introduction to garden cemeteries. As published 19th century guides confirm, there has always been a consideration for the ‘life’ of these cemeteries beyond their original use as a place of interment.
The idea of them being used as places for tourism is certainly not a new one. Janine related this use of cemetery spaces for tourist and leisure activities to the 19th century Grand Tour, when tourists visited international burial sites, and explained that the 19th century cemetery guides envisage the garden cemetery as a sculpture park to be enjoyed for its artistic merits, not merely as a place of mourning.
I certainly hope I can get my hands on one of these guides; I would love to see first-hand how these spaces were described!
‘As the traditional role of historic cemeteries changes in an attempt to revitalise these historic spaces through public engagement, this paper will explore how and why this transition is occurring from a space with one defined purpose, to sites of entertainment.’ASDS Seminar Series
Janine went on to discuss what constitutes public engagement in cemeteries, and how there is an emphasis on making the absent present by telling the stories of the people connected to the place, as well as of the place and landscape itself. She explained the role of the cemetery as a heritage space, and as a valuable and valued resource for local communities.
Illustrated with examples from historic cemeteries around the UK, the paper discussed the necessity to engage with a wider community and audience in order to sustain these sites, particularly in cases where the cemeteries are regarded as endangered, risk gradual neglect and decay, or even complete abandonment.
Aside from generating income and ensuring the sites are sustained, the engagement also serves to rediscover and re-engage with forgotten stories relating to those interred; something I heard a lot about when I went on a guided tour of Bradford’s Undercliffe Cemetery in 2019.
The Undercliffe Cemetery Charity have undertaken extensive archival work to build a better understanding of the people buried in the cemetery, and to uncover their fascinating lives, which is then used to create guided tours for visitors.
Although the funerary monuments are interesting sculptural pieces to enjoy in their own right, the context and understanding gained by hearing about the people they memorialise enhances the visitor experience significantly. Work like this has been progressed at many sites by the growing interest in ‘Friends’ groups.
A particularly interesting part of the paper came with Janine’s discussion about whether the visiting of cemeteries can be considered dark tourism in the traditional sense of the definition.
‘Within academia these spaces are sometimes regarded as ‘dark tourism or dark heritage’ as they are places of the dead; although this may not be strictly accurate, they are not places of death or tragedy. Is the presence of the human remains part of the draw to these sites, or a hindrance to their new, alternative use?’ASDS Seminar Series
Whilst I had always assumed that visiting these sites would fall somewhere under the umbrella of dark tourism, this paper challenged that perspective considerably. Although the presence of human remains would generally lead one to consider the site as being a place for dark tourism, rather than a conventional tourist site, Janine’s assertion that these are not places of death, but places of interment that are devoid of the tragic history usually associated with dark tourism sites, proved a very interesting observation.
The paper affirmed this further when Janine made the distinction between the tour offered at Arnos Vale cemetery which is considered a form of dark tourism, and the other tours available that are not. The cemetery hosts a ‘morbid curiosity’ tour, which is one of the most popular out of the eight historic tours offered to the public, and which focuses on the causes of death of some of the people interred at Arnos Vale.
This death-focused approach is quintessential dark tourism, so could a visit to a historic cemetery that doesn’t have such a deliberate focus on death be considered more akin to regular tourism? When the public are engaging with a tour that presents the biographical narratives of the interred, or that focuses on the funerary sculptures and symbolism, it is quite possible to see how this is far-removed from the remits of dark tourism.
Thinking back to guided tours I have been on myself at historic cemeteries (Highgate, London; Undercliffe, Bradford; Centralfriedhof, Vienna; etc.), these have been utterly devoid of death in the stories and narratives presented by the guide. If you forget for a moment that these sites are the resting place of human (c)remains, you could easily see how this fits less into the category of dark tourism than generic tourism.
Although the ‘morbid curiosity’ tour has proved popular for Arnos Vale, does this suggest that people visiting historic cemeteries are predominantly doing so for reasons other than the association with death and morbidity? Are people visiting these sites for them being a place where there is an encapsulation of varied, relevant human stories, and in doing so wanting to engage in a way that focuses less on death and more on the lives commemorated?
Are these truly a form of sculptural park and heritage site where the significance of the remains present is not the remains themselves, but that they are used as a prompt for a wider discussion; is it the case that people are visiting not to be close to the specific remains or for any kind of personal connection with them, but because the memorials there make the people’s stories relevant? This would certainly remove any connection to conventional dark tourism.
‘Drawing from experiences of researching and working in historic cemeteries, this paper explores the transition from cities of the dead to places for the living and looks at a selection of sites that have capitalised on the darker side of the historic environment.’ASDS Seminar Series
Janine’s paper went on to discuss the wide variety of engagement employed by historic cemeteries, from the traditional tour (be it themed, nature-focused, historic, or featuring guest speakers), to the use of the sites for theatre productions and the staging of artistic works.
The complexities faced by historic cemeteries still open for interments, or those with graves that are less than 60 years old and still in active use as sites of mourning, was an interesting element to hear about; particularly when considering how the sites allow for public engagement alongside accommodating the needs of mourners.
The paper concluded with some reflections on the use of printed materials for engagement, such as maps, guidebooks, etc., as these reduce site impact and encourage self-guided engagement. It was also interesting to hear how websites and blogs are becoming more widely used by these historic sites, as well as curating a social media presence.
I was particularly happy to hear about the potential for engagement with schools and families, and the encouragement Janine had for opening these historic spaces up for as many people and uses as possible.
Hopefully I’ll get to visit Arnos Vale soon, and I’m looking forward to the next ASDS seminar already! Janine’s research into public engagement in historic cemeteries was fascinating to hear and is also something I consider deeply necessary; I’ve certainly noted before the problems of historic cemeteries lacking in engagement from a visitor’s perspective, and also the importance of maintaining these historic sites for future generations, whether they are dark tourism sites or not.
You can find out more about the ASDS and their seminars (free for members) here.
Janine Marriott tweets @thejanine
Take a look at @asds_death Seminar Series: ‘Public engagement in historic cemeteries’ by @thejanine blogpost from @ckbartleTweet