One theme of this Archaeodeath blog has explored through site visits is the integration of the 20th/21st-century cremated dead into the historic environments of Welsh and English churchyards. This often involves a bifurcation or even a trifurcation of locales for contemporary commemoration in relation to the church and its historic churchyard as well as involving churchyard extensions. Inhumations and cremation can be separated, and sometimes multiple locations are contemporaneously deployed for cremation burials, as last discussed for Caerwent, Gwent. Linked to this, cremation can often see the revitalisation of spaces long disused for burial and often close to the church itself. Other strategies identified involve placing cremation burials in gaps within the traditional churchyard space alongside pathways and against boundaries as at Frodsham, Cheshire; Backford, Cheshire; West Kirby, Wirral; Heysham, Lancashire; or Minera, Wrexham.
For an academic discussion, see my co-authored book chapter in The Routledge Handbook of Memory and Place.
Many of these cremation burial plots have no discrete boundaries, or indeed utilise existing structures as borders and backdrops (such as the church itself, churchyard boundaries, paths). In other words, they work to integrate themselves into the ‘traditional’ churchyard space. However, there are some that are separately demarcated and have modest memorial foci of their own, making efforts to stand out and create distinctive and creative architectural and landscape choices. One such striking example is at Overton, Wrexham. I want to write about it here since it is different from many of the cremation burial plots I’ve addressed before. Here are the key distinctive attributes:
- the location is distinctive: in the churchyard burial ground extension and thus separate from the church but close to the newest inhumation graves;
- while in proximity to the recent inhumed dead, the positioned on the south side of the burial ground, and thus the orientation, is in contrast to the west-east aligned inhumation graves: the cremation burials face north;
- the cremation burial plot has a distinctive low car park-style wooden boundary with a single central entrance;
- The graves are arranged in chronological order, with the oldest to the back of the five rows, and the only spaces remaining to the front.
- each low ledger is surrounded by shingle contrasting with the surrounding mown grass of the inhumation graves;
- the black low ledgers are of uniform size, form and colour, although inevitably minor details of text and character have emerged;
- there is a canopied cross as a central collective memorial set against the hedges behind and facing over the cremation burials.
Most striking of all is that, when I visited, this existing distinctive demarcated burial plot was in the process of being precisely replicated to its east, with a single grave so far populating an otherwise empty space. So the design of cremation burial is set to persist for decades to come, with one completely filled and one increasingly populated ‘twin’ plots for the cremated dead!
Archaeologies of the future? You are looking at one in a churchyard setting: a space awaiting graves but their absence and future-presence firmly articulated in the boundaries set out.
Now the interesting thing is that the cremated dead are also interred in the old churchyard too, so the human dead’s burial locales at Overton are subject to quadfurcation:
- inhumation in the churchyard extension
- cremation burial in the old churchyard
- cremation burial in the churchyard extension’s cremation plot;
- cremation burial in the churchyard’s extension’s second new cremation plot.
The implications are manifold. This modest yet distinctive example of a cremation burial plot shows one among a host of choices made at parish level regarding how the cremated dead are incorporated into churchyards and burial grounds (or to put it the other way around, how churchyards and burial grounds are changing to accommodate the cremated dead). As well as broad themes, it is these localised varied choices that require our detailed and careful attention as part of a contemporary archaeology of death.