Death and community in rural settlements: Changing burial culture in small towns and villages

Project: Research project (funded)Research

Project Details


The project explored changing burial culture in two regions (Yorkshire and Leicestershire-Rutland) to address the following three objectives:
- To establish a robust chronology of changing burial provision (foundation of new cemeteries; extensions to existing sites; closure of churchyards and burial grounds; opening of crematoria), charting the shift in rural locations from the use of churchyard to cemetery and crematoria and characterising any difference between rural settlement types;
- To assess the relative strength of explanatory factors in assessing changing burial provision, including demographic shifts; new legislation; relations between Church and Chapel; local political issues; and trends in funerary practice; and
- To analyse the changing importance of burial provision to the senses of community and belonging in villages and small towns.

Layman's description

The project considered the history of burial in rural and market-town areas after 1850. This study of cemeteries and churchyards used national and county archives to explore for the first time how local communities responded to churchyard closures and new cemetery creation. Hitherto, historians and sociologists have described a shift from the ‘traditional’ sacred churchyard to the municipal, secular and ‘scientific’ cemetery. This is a false dichotomy. New burial board cemeteries were managed largely by parish vestries and, until the Burial Act 1900, consecrated cemetery land was in law regarded as an extension to parish burial space. In churchyards and cemeteries alike, the proliferation of complex monuments increased through the nineteenth century. Churchyard extensions created space for higher expectations, particularly for families to be buried together and ‘in perpetuity.’ Traditional churchyard re-use was undermined.

A new aesthetic is the most persuasive explanation for the changing landscape of churchyards and cemeteries in the twentieth century, as ‘cluttered’ Victorian styles fell out of favour. Furthermore, maintenance was easier. The incidence of cremation increased substantially but has not necessarily undermined rural churchyard use since space for cremated remains has often been made available, for example in gardens of remembrance. For rural communities today, continued use of churchyard remains a preference where possible since reliance on voluntary donation of time and funds offers a more flexible arrangement. Patterns of churchyard closure differed between regions: in the English midlands, closure was more commonplace than in North Yorkshire, where the majority of churchyards remain in use. However, in both locations, the need to secure more burial space remains problematic.

Key findings

This project has substantially revised understandings of the management and use of different types of burial space over the last century and a half. Key findings include the following:
• Nineteenth-century churchyard closures by Order in Council tended to be negotiated rather than imposed, and often offered conditions under which burial might continue.
• The second half of the nineteenth century demonstrated unease with burial practices that threatened disturbance of the dead, and this trend persisted through the twentieth century. However, directions accompanying the Burial Acts clearly expected that cemeteries would be re-used.
• The substantial number of new cemeteries laid out in rural areas questions the overwhelming focus upon large city cemeteries in cemetery historiography.
• The Burial Acts allowed for the provision of cemeteries with both consecrated and unconsecrated portions. Denominational tension was evident in both regions on such issues as land apportionment and the building of chapels. Midlands cemeteries were more likely to contain two chapels.
• New church building and churchyard expansion continued to add to the stock of consecrated ground.
• Churchyard extension was not strongly linked to church rebuilding in either region. The incidence of extension in both places was particularly marked between 1875 and1935.
• Burial boards were more prevalent in larger market towns, with greater numbers of ratepayers and higher demographic demand. The parish clergyman continued to preside at funerals in consecrated sections, as in the parish churchyard, while Nonconformist ministers played an increasing role in unconsecrated portions of new cemeteries.
• Denominational differences were marked between the two areas studied. Methodism was strong in both, but was much more likely to express itself through separate burial grounds in the midlands. Old dissenting denominations were especially strong in the midlands counties, were Nonconformist burial grounds were more numerous.
• The establishment of rural district councils (RDCs), coupled with the Public Health (Amendment) Act (1879), offered the opportunity for new cemeteries to be established outside the framework of the Burial Acts. However, RDCs were generally unwilling to accept responsibility for providing burial space, which was undertaken largely by parish and parochial church councils.
• Cremation had limited impact in the Yorkshire rural areas, but has been very significant in the midlands. In many Yorkshire villages – more so than in the Midlands – the church remains a focal point for funerals. The majority of churchyards in both study areas accommodate cremated remains.
• Overall, churchyard closure was much more marked in the midland counties, affecting 53 per cent of Anglican churchyards. This difference is due to different demographics (larger and denser midland populations), midland nucleation raising space issues, rural industry, and historically greater Nonconformity. However, in both regions the rate of closure accelerated after 1970, and continues to be high.
• The appearance of both cemeteries and churchyards changed in the twentieth century, in the same way. Shifting aesthetics and a desire to improve standards of maintenance has driven policies to simplify the landscape.
Effective start/end date21/04/0820/09/11