A few months ago I posted a piece about bomb damage to the cemetery near my home (link). I’m still chasing more information about the bombing and its aftermath. But I’ve had more thoughts about the history of damage and decay in this cemetery so I thought I’d update.
There are quite a few broken headstones and memorials some of which have been reused. Its possible that the bombs broke apart these headstones, fragments of which are reused here as kerbstones in the cemetery.
But there are a host of other ways graves and headstones can be disturbed and damaged. Tree roots destabilise headstones.
Storms bring down branches on them.
Many graves are homes for burrowing animals, most likely foxes.
There are also problems with vandalism particularly of the chapels in the cemetery, though I’m not sure how common the problem is. http://www.portsmouth.co.uk/news/local/vandals-break-into-chapel-in-historic-portsmouth-cemetery-1-6069832
This cemetery is no longer open for new plots. The last available plot was used in 1956. Some families still have burial rights and there are a few recent burials, some graves are tended with flowers.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the war graves.
The Friends of Highland Road Cemetery also work with the city who cut grass, pull back ivy and prop up the broken pieces of headstones.
So is this cemetery a ruin? Its not abandoned, but it has suffered substantial destruction and decay, much of which has not been repaired. The graves themselves are likely to be even more disturbed than the memorials. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Ws96lRU2bA While there are occasional burials it will be soon closed to further burials, so it will no longer have its active original function.
But unlike many cemeteries it hasn’t been paved over, built over, exhumed or forgotten. This is partly because it has Commonwealth War Graves and partly because it plays an important role in the urban landscape. While its mostly used for dog walking, the green space is a landmark in a densely populated city. So it performs many of the roles that ruined abbeys and castles do in other circumstances.
Does it matter? The Commonwealth War Graves Commission undertakes to maintain graves in perpetuity (http://www.cwgc.org/about-us/what-we-do/architecture/our-work-today.aspx) but do we expect the graves of civilians to be maintained once their relatives have died or moved away?
I think there is an ambivalence. We are sad but not surprised to see memorials damaged or decayed. Groups like Friends of Highland Road cemetery show that some people care strongly about maintaining these places. The vandalism on the other hand shows that respect for the dead does not carry the same weight for everyone. What’s more, I think some people prefer a cemetery with some signs of decay. As with other ruins it makes the place more open for contemplation, especially contemplation of time and change.
Can a cemetery be a ruin? Should we maintain them? Would you prefer to be buried in a well maintained cemetery? Do you prefer the cemeteries where loved ones are buried to be well maintained? What about those where you visit the graves of the famous?