Is visiting a cemetery, churchyard or burial ground a legitimate and beneficial form of outdoors activity in the context of the coronavirus pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic is already exacting a heavy death toll across the world, and thus also affecting the timing and character of bereavement, mortuary practices and the uses of cemetery spaces.

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Unfortunately, I’m aware of this first-hand having lost a family member just over two weeks ago here in the UK. Although the virus wasn’t recognised as a causal factor in the death (as far as we know of for sure, of course the UK hasn’t been testing patients for COVID-19 if there are other symptoms), the unfolding broader coronavirus phenomenon affected the dying, death, disposal of my relative, and continues to affect the death’s commemorative and mourning dimensions in a host of fashions. Most pressing now, bereavement is unfolding in an unpredictable fashion, including the fact that the scheduled memorial service cannot go ahead until further notice given concerns over the safety of the elderly people who would wish to attend.

I won’t address this further on this blog, but it does inspire me to reflect on COVID-19’s broader relationship with mortuary environments as heritage, recreational and educational spaces, and particularly on social distancing and cemetery spaces.

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UK government advice on social distancing hasn’t formally extended to funerals and certainly not to all public spaces. Yet in the context of widespread advice to stay at home unless journeys are absolutely necessary, funerals are gatherings which pose a risk to vulnerable groups. Moreover, immunocompromised and elderly people might hesitate before visiting busy public parks and open spaces. So I would like to point out that cemeteries and churchyards remain places deserving of outdoor visits, whether one is visiting a grave or not, and this can be readily done whilst adhering to advice on social distancing.

This is not only because burial grounds are places away from the crowds. Certainly, most burial grounds and cemeteries have multiple access points and a myriad of paths meaning that there is a slim chance you will find oneself in close proximity to anyone else. Furthermore, there is a sparse cemetery culture in the UK, and those graves which are regularly visited are a relatively slim penumbra to large open-area spaces of graves of the long-dead whose burial plots are rarely visited by family members. Even for these recent burial areas, there is a strong social etiquette against approaching others or even talking, so ‘social distancing’ is near-enough guaranteed. Cemeteries are the perfect outdoor spaces to visit during the coronavirus pandemic: the dead are not going to harm you either.

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The benefits of visiting cemeteries remain myriad beyond their emptiness of living people outside of specific funerals. They are accessible and everywhere: you are probably closer than you think to an historic churchyard, cemetery or garden of remembrance. You can certainly exercise through walking or jogging in mortuary environments very easily. Dog-walking might be restricted, but human visitors are usually welcome.

Moreover, you can learn so much about the world around you from the cemetery. You can experience and explore human architectures through church and chapel buildings and gravestones. The materials, geologies, sculpture, symbolism can be read from gravestones in addition to the memorial subjects recorded in texts. Equally, you can enjoy and learn by observing birds, flowers, bushes and trees. Many cemeteries and churchyards afford wonderful vistas over the wider skyscape and landscapes. Benches allow repose as well as movement, so visits needn’t be short. All this can be done without the likelihood of meeting anyone let alone being obliged to move in close proximity to them.

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And, of course, you can explore and learn about human past lives and the communities in which they lived and died. Furthermore, you can learn about changing practices in response to mortality past and present, from Victorian gravestones to modern plaques commemorating the cremated dead.

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Therefore, as much as being reminded of the importance of good hygiene and sanitation, pandemics should alert us to the value of human life, including the importance of mourning and commemorating past lives. It should be a time when we reconnect with mortuary environments as places of mourning and remembrance as well as important heritage, educational and recreational spaces.

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In any case, visiting a cemetery, churchyard or burial ground isn’t social distancing at all, but the opposite! Whether one has a spiritual belief in an afterlife or perhaps simply where their memories reside to be reflected on, whether one is new to an area or recognises the names of past friends and neighbours, visiting cemeteries is the antithesis of social distancing. You get to safely rub shoulders with generations of people and in doing so, recognise and respect their lives and communities as well as the fashion in which they are remembered (as well as the many further interments that might have no memorials).

In summary, I suggest that visiting a cemetery is the ultimate form of socialising for these pandemical times: social remembering in the outdoors whilst social distancing!

I punctuate these comments with images from a recent visit to Widnes cemetery and crematorium to offer inspiration and reflection.