Archaeologists often talk about material agency: crudely put, the properties of things to affect human society. This is an apposite theme for thinking about the biographies of gravestones, exploring the many human and non-human agencies that affect memorials individually and collectively, but also how memorials (again individually and collectively) affect burial spaces and human actions. Specifically, the movement and rearrangement of gravestones can have a powerful mnemonic agency, affecting how memorials are encountered and affecting the use of space. Singly and together, gravestones can be considered profitably as material agents.
Penny Pocket Park and Leeds Minster
In previous blogs, I have explored the significance of displaced memorials and how they individually and as an assemblage afford a distinctive set of mnemonic associations to those in their original locations. This plays out in a distinctive way in the fascinating situation at St Peter’s Minster, Leeds and its adjacent northern churchyard, now separated from it by a road and called Penny Pocket Park. As with many urban churchyards, this one was closed for burial in the 1830s. The new cemetery was opened in 1833 at St George’s Field off Clarendon Road, replacing this abandoned burial environment to become a public park.
In many ways, the churchyard is a typical example of an early 19th-century burial landscape with memorials re-arranged and used for paving pathways as well as kept in situ. The material agency of memorials is revealed in three distinct kinds of incline in which memorials find themselves through human and/or nonhuman agency. In this regard, a jaunty angle reveals the agencies affecting gravestones and how gravestones operate as commemorative and collective agents long after they are abandoned for memorial practices.
Around the minster itself, gravestones have become used as paving, including some fine 18th and 19th century memorials. Particularly striking, outside the minster is how the memorials have been arranged in an incline to allow disabled access to the church’s southern main entrance. Thus, as well as creating a readily manageable flat surface, memorials are reused so that they help the elderly and wheelchair users access the place of worship. Memorials don’t simply offer old, worn and dislocated texts for the living to read (or most likely not), they physically direct and support the living on their navigation of the approaches to the church.
Across the road in Penny Pocket Park, one can see the grave-slabs and how inclines have been created through the disturbance created by tree roots: another form of incline. This is a striking dimension of historic graveyards rarely discussed. Soil is a semi-fluid medium, being pushed up and down by various interactions and disturbances, including roots. As such undulating memorials reveal this ‘fluidity’ over time, revealing the agency of plants upon our public spaces, challenging the human design to create a flat, manageable and undifferentiated parkland space for living people to enjoy. Roots act on memorials, and memorials re-emerge from the horizontal to challenge the living…
The construction work creating a new Leeds railway station followed the stipulation of an Act of Parliament that allowed the old cemetery to be bisected but only upon a solid embankment. If the railway had been built upon a viaduct of brick with foundations (as to the west of the churchyard), many recent graves would have been destroyed inserted within living memory. More fascinating still, the displaced memorials were laid out on the incline of the embankment to denote their relationship their original graves, now buried metres below them! I thought, without reading the heritage board, that they were simply moved to the embankment as an edge to the flat cemetery space cleared to make the park. Their role to invoke, if not accurately, then symbolically, the still-present dead sealed beneath the embankment, explains why the rows of slabs rise up the bank at an angle, rather than 90 degrees from the contour.
So here we find Death on the incline again, and this time revealing the tension between the desire for the railway’s construction and the agency of the still-presence graves and memorials. This is a fascinating attempt to respect the graves of the dead while simultaneously burying the dead beneath more soil than is usually seen appropriate or required! The collective dead create a new form of memorial space, rising again from the horizontal and framing every train that traverses the railway lines above.
Moving from the inclining dead to the declining living… A local drunk chatted with me while I photographed the graves. He apologised for not speaking clearly because he has just had his top teeth removed. He told me all about the memorials and how there were no graves there (almost the opposite is in fact the case it seems).
He was proud of the fact that in over 15 years of drinking in Penny Pocket Park, he has yet to be caught and fined for public drinking. He demonstrated the cunning method of alcohol consumption: keeping his can of lager within his inside jacket pocket. He demonstrated in slow motion how he can sup inconspicuously….
We chatted about features of the cemetery, I nodded in polite agreement at his views and he warned me that my camera might get stolen if I didn’t keep an eye out. I thanked him for his sage words, shook his hand and moved on, realising that the man might not be much older than me…
“Remember the 3 Ps”, he told me, “Penny Pocket Park”.
I remember the 3 Ps, but also the inclines…