‘It seems that there is a rise in tombstone tourism’ started the article. Within the past month or so, awareness to cemeteries as places to visit in the capacity of a social/educational form rather than as a place of remembrance has hit the headlines and I (as well as others) have spoken to various news outlets regarding this new form of so-called dark tourism. Many people are willing to give cemeteries a chance and see them as more than just a place to inter someone. They are, as I keep trying to stress, museums of people.
However the aforementioned Guardian article, written by Barbara Ellen, fell in to the unfortunate trap of making a dissapointing generalisation about those who visit cemeteries and even described those who do as ‘big fat goths’ embracing ‘an old hobby in brighter clothes’. Sadly, she misses the point of seeing a cemetery as somewhere more than just a place to bury a body and in this week’s blog I’m positing the questions; can a cemetery be more than a cemetery?
Darmon from the Bohemian Blog visited Arnos Vale Cemetery in 2014 so I’ll leave it to him to explain its foundation and local importance. But if you want a good example tombstone tourism? Come here and visit.
Mark invited me down for the weekend and as an archivist for Bristol Museum as well as being an awesome photographer, I jumped at the chance. Two BFG’s together.
What is remarkable about Arnos Vale is that they have successfully interepreted the open space as an open air exhibition and museum – infact more weddings happen here than funerals nowadays. Like an expertly manicured Classical churchyard; the chapels and the woodland backdrop makes this an attractive and breath taking place to take a stroll, have a cup of tea or re-engage with Bristol’s past.
There’s a fascinating display below the coffee shop; nestled alongside posters showing it operating in its heyday is the bare truth of a working cemetery. A catafalque and an old cremator that looks like it appeared in Home Alone. Happily a young boy was running around with his dad, fascinated by things like funeral biers. If you can fascinate a kid with things like this, top marks.
I’m not sure if I like the term ‘tombstone tourism’ — I think it commodifies a genuine interest in what isn’t always appreciated as a remarkable cultural resource. But there is an interest there that needs to be addressed and be it a Friends Association, Instagram group, local council, Royal Park or private company, tourism is something that has always happened in a Cemetery right from the Victorian era – Kensal Green used to sell guide books in the 1850’s to those who paid a visit and they weren’t alone. Arnos recognises heritage, nature and education exist together and should be demonstrated to keep the site relevant and current to the local population.
‘At its peak Arnos Vale had seven cremation furnaces and held up to 30 cremations per day. With several furnaces running at once, conditions in the crematorium could be unpleasant. Temperatures reached up to 40 degrees…respiratory problems were a common side effect of the job.’ – info from a display board below the Cafe.
But the real beauty of Arnos Vale (and any cemetery) looking at showing off what lies within is are its graves, tombs and monuments. The entrance lodge has a number of self-guided walks available to visitors as well as an official tour which highlights the former alumni of Bristol. James Hosken, the captain of Brunel’s SS Great Britain (which is docked in the nearby floating harbour); educational reformer Mary Carpenter and, intruingly, reformist Rajah Rammohun Roy, who basically helped create modern India and introduced the word ‘Hinduism’ to the English language in 1816.
This is on top of other things you can do within these alls – yoga classes, storytelling workahops, classroom activities, go on a pilgramage and even get married. As cemeteries fill up and burial space becomes constricted, why aren’t more people utiling them as community assets? We already have a number of other events in Churches/other faith centres already; can’t this use be extended to a cemetery as well?
So can cemeteries be more than a cemetery? Can a cemetery offer more than a grave? Clearly they can, as long as it done tastefully and in consultation with the local area so that its main purpose as a museum of people is preserved, protected and encouraged. Arnos Vale are doing good work and are able to appeal to everyone – many London Cemeteries are beginning to take note and explore the ideas they’ve implemented in their own way, for the benefit of two big fat goths like me and Mark (who happened to be wearing brighter clothes) who see these spaces as somewhere more than just a collection of skeletons.
All photography © thehistoryb0yphotography 2017.