There was a recent piece in The Conversation written about Japanese society, taking an archaeological perspective. They asked: what makes a polite society in material culture terms?
Claire Smith, Gary Jackson and Koji Mizoguchi gave us some tips on the material culture of contemporary Japan from an archaeological perspective, and its polite design elements. These included carefully demarcated cycle paths, park benches with tables upon which to eat or read or rest laptops, toilets with adequate wheelchair access and highchairs. The list goes on.
Indeed, it is a list that is shameful to read from a European perspective, since so often these features of our public spaces are poorly designed, badly maintained or vandalised. Respect for the disadvantaged, caring for animals, politeness for the elderly and disabled, safety for children and courtesy to non-motorised road-users all have manifold material culture signatures of a polite soicety we frequently lack.
So here’s my question. How does the contemporary archaeology of polite society find material evidence in the cemetery and churchyard context? What is the archaeology of the polite society of the European mortuary environment? Does material culture exhibit a polite or impolite mortuary culture?
Well, there is plenty I could say about this. Swedish and Danish cemeteries are exemplary in their management and facilities. UK ones less so,. yet they share in many common arrangements intended to show respect for the dead and courtesy and politeness to those mourners and visitors using the cemetery or churchyard.
Signs of ‘polite’ cemetery culture are diverse. We might consider the archaeology of cemetery management exhibited in the provision of paved paths, well-maintained gates and walls, pruned trees and hedges, water taps and watering cans for mourners to utilise, recycling facilities for different kinds of cemetery waste, toilets, disabled parking and so on.
But let’s start really simple, how about the archaeology of requesting dog walkers not to let canines crap all over our ancestors?
Yes, we are really that far behind many other countries, even some rural churchyards have to put up signs to tell people to keep their dogs on leads and not to let them poo all over granny’s grave.
Two churchyards on my recent visit to the Isle of Man illustrate this point. They were well-managed and had carefully laid out paths. As with churchyards and cemeteries everywhere, there were signs at the entrances explaining what is permitted and what is not: materialising a code of behaviour upon those that visit these spaces. That is, at least, for those that can read.
Yet the ‘dogs on lead’ signs, suggests there is a problem. And the nice silhouette of a crapping dog is there to communicate to even the most illiterate of dog walkers.A red circle and diagonal line make it crystal clear this is an image of the socially prohibited behaviour, not one prescribed.
So is this the archaeology of a polite mortuary culture? Or is it the archaeology of an impolite dog-owning culture? Or a bit of both.
Graves most foul!
Update: Feb 2018: here’s another example taken in 2009 at Nercwys, Flintshire.