Cemeteries as public space under the Covid-19 lockdown

Written 23rd April 2020

Near to where I live in Bristol, the UK, is a large old cemetery with a disused chapel in the centre. It is both historical, with some graves dating back to when it opened in 1871, while at the same time burials still take place there and several sections have yet to be used. Under ‘normal’ circumstances or ‘before Covid-19’ times, I would cycle past this cemetery regularly, on occasion take my young daughter for a walk there, or head there in late summer to pick blackberries. I would always see one or two other people in there – joggers, dog walkers, people passing through – but in general it was a quiet peaceful space, open and green yet differing distinctly from the local park used as a hub for leisure and play.

On the 24th of March, like many governments across the world, the UK government ordered a general lockdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This restricted people to their homes with a few exceptions, including the right to go out for exercise once a day. While outside for the permitted activities, people must maintain a distance of 2 meters from each other. In the first weeks of the lockdown I cycled through the cemetery, and I had never seen it so busy before. These people were using it for leisure, for their daily permitted exercise. Lots of families with young children were in there, more joggers than usual, and dog walkers. While everyone was respecting the social distancing rules to the extent that was possible, it was drastically different to the average day just a few weeks before. The cemetery is in a very urbanised area, and many local residents have little or no outdoor space where they live.

As we got closer to the Easter Bank Holiday weekend in the UK, the weather forecast was looking very good; four warm sunny days off work lay ahead. Concerned that people would not respect the stay at home orders, the local Council made the decision to close all the city’s cemeteries. Unlike the local park, which is open on many sides, it is possible to simply lock the front and rear gates at the entrances to this and most other cemeteries. Almost a fortnight later, and despite central government recommendations to keep cemeteries open as a public space and amenity necessary for people’s mental and physical health during lockdown, when I passed by yesterday it was still closed.

Bristol United Kingdom Great Britain England cemetery front gate
Bristol United Kingdom Great Britain England cemetery rear gate

Photos: Front and rear gates of the cemetery closed and locked

The effect of Covid-19 on the CeMi project and its underlying questions and objectives have been discussed in previous blog posts in relation to the impact on burial services, funerals, and bereavement. But Covid-19 has also starkly revealed cemeteries and crematoria to be contested public space, which was one of the fundamental arguments of the CeMi project, and one of the discussions within Geography and Planning that the research is contributing to. Through Covid-19 cemeteries are suddenly recognised by both communities and authorities as an important green public space needed for leisure, while at the same time their primary use as a place of burial, mourning, bereavement, and commemoration is under greater pressure. In turn, these needs of users clash with the responsibility of authorities to respond to the public health crisis. In restricting cemetery use to their primary purpose – burials and funerals – the variety of purposes and communities they serve, which is often overlooked, is in fact revealed. Only in their absence as a space for leisure is this competing purpose really felt and seen.

The sign attached to the cemetery’s gates from the City Council explains it is closed to members of the public until further notice, and that access is only permitted for funerals, essential works on site. It continues, “It is important not to breach any fences, closed gates, sectioned off areas and closed facilities as listed above. Car parks, parking facilities and vehicle access is closed with the exception of a hearse for funerals and vehicles carrying mourners.” It then stipulates who is allowed to be in attendance at a graveside or crematorium funeral: a maximum of 10 guests, the officiate of the ceremony, and the funeral director. It ends, “We appreciate this may cause disruption and distress. The decision has not been taken lightly but is necessary for the safety, health and consideration of the local and wider community.”

In closing the cemetery to the ‘public’ the Council is not only preventing its use for leisure and exercise but preventing those people who go regularly (or irregularly) to visit the graves of friends and family inside. And despite the warning on the notice on the gate, the cemetery is still being used by people, albeit less than when the gates were open, who enter through gaps made in the iron fence around the site, one of which has even been facilitated by some carpet on the floor. People entering this way are claiming their right to the space, however not everyone is physically able or willing to. And these actions are contested and challenged both formally and informally. When I was there yesterday morning a community police officer was walking the perimeter of the site, and debates over these actions have been quite heated on local Facebook groups. I have seen these range from people arguing that they need to use the space (especially families with young children and no outdoor space), others questioning the logic of closing the cemetery and the knock-on effect this will have on the local park by pushing people to concentrate there, and others being highly critical of those still entering the cemetery. The tone has been, at times, shaming and judgemental.

Bristol United Kingdom Great Britain England cemetery fence gap 1
Bristol United Kingdom Great Britain England cemetery fence gap 2

Photos: Gaps in the perimeter fence of the cemetery which people use to access it

Yesterday morning as I cycled past with my daughter on our daily trip out of the house for exercise, I stopped to take a closer look at a community ‘post-corona wishing washing line’ that had been put up on the fence near the main entrance, inviting people to add a comment on what they hoped for once the crisis was over. The range of notes seemed to capture the experiences of the diverse users of the cemetery and their needs, and some of the debates within the community about how the cemetery should be used, what was respectful, and whose rights should be prioritised. Judging by handwriting, some were from adults and others from children. Some directly talked about their exclusion from the cemetery and what this meant to them: “Please respect the people/children/soldiers here at Greenbank” and “My brother has died and we can’t look at graves here!” Others reflected on changes in general: “I hope the sense of local community coming together can be maintained” and “I hope that we don’t forget all that we have remembered”.

Bristol United Kingdom Great Britain England cemetery wishing washing line 1
Bristol United Kingdom Great Britain England cemetery wishing washing line 2
Bristol United Kingdom Great Britain England cemetery wishing washing line 3

Covid-19 and the UK lockdown is affecting not just burial services, funerals, and bereavement, but also cemeteries and crematoria as public space. The underlying issues of balancing various needs and users in these spaces has been thrown into the spotlight under these exceptional circumstances. One thing that seems to be taking place is perhaps a consideration within communities around the questions of cemeteries as a public good, rights of access, and the multiple values of these spaces within urban environments, questions that are central to the CeMi project and HERA’s call for research on Public Spaces.

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