I recently revisited the Gwent village of Caerwent, home to Roman ruins of the civitas capital of the Silures where one can see the remains of Roman town walls, shops and houses, the forum and basilica and a temple. As well as absorbing the wonders of these well-present Roman ruins, I took the opportunity of visiting the churchyard of St Stephen and St Tathan’s church to explore the memorials.
As well as noting the 19th-century graves and the use of the southern and western portions for the 20th/early 21st-century inhumation graves, I then noticed where the cremated dead were interred. This is a theme in my research: the spatial and material dimensions of contemporary cremation practices in 20th and 21st-century mortuary environments. What I found was another striking example of a bifurcation in the deposition of the cremated dead and the choice of locations for the two plots for the interment of the cremated dead was most interesting. Now, cremated remains can be added to inhumation burial plots too, so let’s not forget that dimension of cremation in the churchyard either. Yet, at Caerwent, there is a very distinctive pairing of locational choices where the cremated dead are interred in discrete plots.
First, and oldest, there is a raised separate miniature walled area just inside the northern (main) entrance to the churchyard where carefully organised cremation plots are positioned. By being raised, the consecrated ground and earlier burials will not be disturbed in any regard by their addition. One enters by the tiniest of gates designed for baby hobbits (or else one steps over it). I’ve seen paved cremation plots before, but not ones fenced in this fashion. I’m suspecting it originates from the 1960s or 1970s when cremation first spread widely into churchyards following the establishment of municipal crematoria in this era.
Given this first area beside the northern churchyard boundary is now fully populated, a second cremation plot has been established, but this term returning cremation to the lawn of the churchyard itself, but situated in a zone bereft of recent burials and cleared of 19th-century memorials. Again, cremation is associated with the edge of the churchyard, but this time in a special position in relation to the church: on its axis and immediately to its east.
Together, this constitutes another example of the local parish-level choices regarding how the pre-existing traditional churchyard environment is adapted to incorporate the cremated dead, making them simultaneously a part of the consecrated churchyard community of the dead but spatially set apart using spatial and material components. These burial plots represent a hitherto untold and often overlooked dimension of the heritage of the Welsh churchyard.
I wish to note one further dimension of Caerwent’s cremation practices I didn’t see because the church was locked: a Roman cremation vessel on display in a niche within the church itself.