Cemeteries have many great and historic trees and other plantings. Here, however, I am talking about trees and woods as an metaphor. I’m not really talking about trees and woods. Just saying, in case you get confused.
We are all familiar with the saying ‘cannot see the wood for the trees’. It is intended to convey the sense of someone who only sees the elements, not the bigger picture they compose. Scholars researching historic cemeteries sometimes suffer from this approach. Others have the opposite problem: they cannot see the memorial ‘trees’ for the cemetery ‘wood’.
While supervising my students over the last 2 weeks on the Overleigh cemetery memorial survey as discussed here and here I have been struck by this dual problem of memorial survey. We are using the memorial forms developed for the CBA by Harold Mytum and effectively employed by him in Ireland, Yorkshire, South-West Wales and elsewhere, allows students to rigorously and systematically record all the details upon individual memorials. These can in turn allow us to compare the data spatially and chronologically, but still, we are focusing on individual elements: the ‘trees’ as isolated entities to be compared and contrasted.
Conversely, discussions of landscape design and landscape history focus on the cemetery – the ‘wood’ as an entity: the way they are designed, arranged and develop over time.
Most crucially, seeing cemeteries either as ‘woods’ or ‘trees’ is enshrined in the way they are protected. Cemeteries as protected ‘parks and gardens’, and sometimes a small selection of individual monuments of specific value and merit for their design or the persons they commemorate are individually afforded a listing.
Thinking about Overleigh
The old (northern) part of Overleigh cemetery has many fascinating dimensions to it: historic trees planted first in the 19th century (but I did say I wasn’t going to talk about trees, right?), curvilinear paths, gates and boundaries. It is a fabulous designed memorial landscape. Equally, it contains many striking memorials within it, far more than the handful that are afforded individual protected status.
Both seeing cemeteries as composed of individual memorials and as designed landscapes overlooks the potential of exploring the microbiographies of individual memorials: how they are made, installed, augmented, managed, break and topple. Conversely, we need to consider how these memorials interact with each other over time within specific zones of the cemetery. These memorials together constitute a powerful collective presence, affording the visitor with the results of many social and economic relationships between the living mourners and dead relatives, attempts to express love, loss and affinity as well as the result of socio-economic interactions between mourners, the dead, masons, undertakers and cemetery operators.
For me, the most profitable approach is to try to identify ways we can increasingly shift focus between the two static scales of analysis and find ways of exploring memorial interactions and accumulations within cemeteries and cemetery zones, between memorials and within specific memorials. Hence I like to consider cemeteries as ‘cumulative assemblages’. The real promise is to shift between these two scales and consider the evolving and transforming nature of both memorials and their spatial settings and chronological dimensions.