Choice and constraint in the burial landscape: Re-evaluating twentieth-century commemoration in the English churchyard

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Death in the twentieth century is generally defined in terms of large-scale trajectories and meta-narratives that are presumed to reflect changing attitudes towards mortality. In actuality, there is very little historical research that concentrates on the ‘typical’ and domestic experiences of mortality and funerary practice. The assumption that the century can be characterised in terms of ‘disengagement’ does not encompass evidence around commemorative practices. Contemporary accounts indicate that visits to the cemetery were routine for many families, and remained central to expressions of loss. However, the twentieth-century burial landscape has been castigated for its apparent monotony and lack of emotional engagement. This paper uses a simple conception of agency to consider the issue of choice and constraint in the modern burial landscape. The paper focuses on the tensions that followed the decision by the Diocese of York in the late 1950s to introduce stringent regulations on the style, material and scale of monuments in churchyards. These regulations were intended to prevent the erection of monuments that were regarded as inappropriate to the setting of ancient churches, and were largely a conservation measure. However, many families regarded the regulations as unduly constraining the choice of monument they deemed to be fitting. The paper indicates that the resultant landscape constitutes an artificially constructed image of a rural churchyard, in which agency has been effectively supressed. As a consequence, the modern churchyard landscape should not be used as evidence for societal unease with mortality. Overall, the paper suggests that studies of death in the twentieth century have tended not to seek evidence of active agency and choice in funerary practice, which in itself reinforces the view that death in the twentieth century can be typified by disengagement.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)215-234
Number of pages19
Issue number3
Early online date18 Jul 2013
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013


  • Death
  • Burial
  • Churchyard

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