Before Easter, I spent c. 9 hours over three days, supervising level 6 (third-year) students record graveyard memorials in Chester’s Overleigh cemetery as I have blogged about before here, here, here and here. I came back to work this week to learn that a member of the public visiting recent graves in the cemetery while we were conducting the survey has complained to the University about our presence and behaviour.
I take this complaint very seriously. I can well imagine how upsetting it must be when trying to visit a grave and finding the presence of others causing an interruption or distraction, even if we were working away from recent graves. There is no doubt in my mind that the complainant felt deeply upset by our presence.
I have discussed it with my line manager and the Dean of Students and I have spent an hour discussing the complaint with my students and situating it in relation to broader issues and challenges we face as archaeologists working in and around mortuary contexts and environments.
My line manager has asked me to write a letter to the complainant via the Dean of Students. While that communication will remain private, I feel I want to share an edited version of parts of this letter on my blog. I do this because the broader issues addressed might help explain the nature of the work to others, as well as to express my sincere desire to cause no upset to those using modern cemeteries.
Our third-year (level 6) archaeology degree students have the option of taking a module called ‘Death and Burial’ which explores how archaeological research (the study of human societies through the material remains they leave behind) can reveal the complex, deep and varied human responses to mortality from earliest prehistory to recent times. This far-ranging course aims to expand and enhance student appreciation of past human cultures and their relationships with death, the dead and ancestors as well as how they vary and change over time and space. It also serves to cultivate an appreciation of heritage sites and museum collections which relate to graves, cemeteries and commemorative culture.
In the final part of this module, we conduct an exercise in systematic archaeological graveyard recording at Overleigh cemetery with the permission of Chester and Cheshire West who manage the site. This is a non-intrusive survey that aims to record memorials, not to dig or disturb graves. It is a more detailed practice than simply photographing memorials and recording the names upon them; the students have to sketch the memorials and record details of ornament, the choice of stone, the size and shape of memorials, as well as the details of the text (including what is said and the font used). They also have to record whether the memorials commemorate single individuals or are augmented over time to remember the lives of many family members by the addition of further inscribed names and monumental components. It is also important to state that the students are conducting this survey on the older graves in the oldest part of Overleigh cemetery: memorials first raised in the period from c. 1880 to 1910. This year, as with previous years, we have worked for 3 days, for only 3 hours on each day. The students recorded over 200 memorials of all kinds, most dating to the end of the 19th and very early 20th centuries in a core area of the cemetery removed from the most recent graves and memorials.
By recording these memorials, we are hoping to preserve them by record for posterity and encourage student and public awareness of their historic value, as well as promote respect and understanding for the cemetery as a memorial landscape. We try to explain our work to anyone who comes and asks us what we are doing.
Before they begin the survey work, the students get a tour of the cemetery as a whole, and are given clear instructions regarding the health and safety issues pertaining to working in the cemetery. They are also given clear instructions regarding their conduct and the volume and choice of language that is appropriate in a cemetery which is still used by mourners.
In my view, the students treated their work seriously and worked hard. In doing so, they enjoyed themselves and this involved verbal discussion of their work in the cemetery. It also involved students joking and laughing. I regard this as an inevitable part of the teamwork dynamic. I am confident the students were working well and acting respectfully to the memorials and environment in which they were operating.
I understand that a mourner witnessed my students conducting their survey c. 25-30 m away from the grave they were visiting but within earshot. This happened when the students were nearing the end of their third and final survey session. I was in attendance as the students’ on-site supervisor.
I am extremely sorry that the presence, noise and actions of our group seemed disrespectful to the character of the cemetery environment. I am also deeply upset and regretful that our presence disrupted a mourner visiting a recent grave.
I have now discussed the complaint with my students and they are all very disappointed that their presence caused upset. They learned a great deal, and thoroughly enjoyed the memorial survey. In positive terms, this complaint was very useful as a means of discussing with them the ethics of working in public environments and dealing with spaces set aside for the burial and the commemoration of the dead, both today as well as in the past.
In future, I will renew efforts to ensure our brief presence among the older graves and memorials in the cemetery to survey memorials is less intrusive to mourners using other parts of the cemetery. My students presented some practical actions that will help me do so . I am now discussing how to put these changes into effect.