For the sixth field trip on this academic year’s level 5 (second-year) ‘Contemporary Past’ module, I’d planned to take the students to explore the biography and diversity of places of worship of the 20th and early 21st centuries, looking at the Welsh-speaking and chapel-rich village of Rhosllanerchrugog (Wrexham). We did this, showing how early 21st-century Britain inherits a complex set of religious architectures of dissenting (Noncomformist) religious communities. In addition, we ended up visiting the war memorial, which I have posted about separately. One of the chapels had centenary Silent Silhouettes, and this inspired another post.
I had intended the trip not to dwell on mortuary archaeology, which was to be the focus of the subsequent 7th and 8th field trips. However, we ended up in the Rhos’ Anglican (Church of Wales) churchyard and adjacent municipal cemetery. Hence, it seemed logical to explore this space in some detail with the students. Given its size and character – larger than most churchyards but smaller than most suburban municipal cemeteries – this rapidly became a valuable and impromptu introduction to the complex and evolving trends in cemetery landscapes and forms, materials and styles in mortuary commemoration over the last century and a half.
St John Evangelist
St. John Evangelist is a good example of the Romanesque revival; the parish was formed in 1844 and the church built 1852-53. Today, it’s accessible from the lychgate to the west from Church Street.
There are a series of very impressive monuments in the churchyard including obelisks and coped gravecovers in Gothic form, commemorating the middle class of the community.
There was one particularly impressive tomb chest in a particularly precarious situation of disassembly.
There is also a parish war memorial, a circle-headed cross-head with a down-facing sword, and the names of the dead listed no the base. It is diminutive compared with the village’s memorial that incorporates many who presumably were Nonconformists. Its position outside the disused church, part of a neglected and overgrown churchyard, could not be more in contrast to the carefully tended village war memorial.
The Cemetery in the 20th century
The adjacent cemetery contains graves of the 20th and 21st-century. The older section is dominated by concrete as much as stone, and I discussed the prevalence of higher monuments and also of kerbs, contrasting with more recent burial plots where only grass is allowed to populate the plot beyond the gravestone.
We also discussed the varied forms of gravestone and the ornamentation and choice of memorial language – many English but a significant portion in Welsh.
We also discussed the relationship between the cemetery and the original churchyard: how we can see a stark and simple downhill eastwards horizontal stratigraphy as the burying community expanded its cemetery from the Anglican churchyard boundary to include new paths and plots.
We found a rare example of an iron grave memorials, the likes of which rarely survive and only sometimes populate cemeteries.
A further feature we noticed was regarding cemetery management: the careful resting of broken and loose gravestones horizontally. We considered this both as a health and safety-related practice, but also an act of care and respect: treating the gravestone like a dying body and affording it repose over its long-dead occupant and subject.
This brings us to the most recent extension of the cemetery in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. We noted the change in materials, organisation, ornamentation and texts on the newer gravestones. Some graves have yet to acquire permanent grave markers, whilst those that have tend towards grey and black, and have a range of personalised secular motifs.
A further feature of recent graves is the desire to help navigation to the required grave from the main path, and also to emphasise more personal information, by inscribed the back-sides of a significant minority of gravestones.
We also noted the signs that warn dog-owners regarding their potential infringement on the space with canine faeces.
In addition, we noted two lines of memorials over cremation graves, smaller simulcra of their larger inhumation-grave memorial cousins; the limited space of two lines means that they have gotten ahead of the rest of the cemetery in their downslope descent.
All told, the field trip gave my students a clear sense of the evolving commemorative culture in contemporary Britain in a large post-industrial Welsh village context, contrasting in multiple regards with the English churchyards already visited, and the cemetery and crematorium visit yet to come.
In class and in the field, we discussed in detail ethical behaviours and practices in contemporary archaeology, including debates over how and when to visit and photograph mortuary monuments in order to balance appropriate respect to those commemorated with the benefits of education and research in investigating late 19th, 20th and 21st-century commemorative practices alongside those of more distant time periods.