The Cemetery Club: Should resting places be tourist attractions?

Cemeteries have always attracted visitors. Julius Caesar stopped at Alexander the Great’s tomb. The discovery of Tutankhamun launched a fashion for all things Egyptian. Today, people might include a famous cemetery on their list of must-see holiday destinations. Some academics call this fascination with places of death or disasters ‘dark tourism’.  

James Kennell from the University of Greenwich says: “Dark Tourism is any kind of tourism associated with death, suffering or disaster. That can vary from a very light form of dark tourism, such as visiting the London Dungeons, right to visiting Auschwitz and other places that are associated with something extremely tragic. Touring cemeteries can be a light form of dark tourism.

“People may go to see the graves of famous people they have no connection with, such as Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris for instance, or may follow up their family history and search for graves with a personal connection.

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“There haven’t been any studies to quantify dark tourism and no one has actually measured how much it has grown but anecdotally this is something lots of tourism agencies over the world are starting to concentrate on. The agencies are always looking for a competitive advantage and it seems that dark tourism is something far more people are feeling comfortable talking about and getting involved with now.”

Interest in some popular sites has continued to grow, leaving cemeteries balancing the needs of mourners and visitors. In 2016, Highgate Cemetery, one of the UK’s most famous resting places, revealed an eight percent increase in visitor numbers. Of the 85 thousand people who came to north London’s well known resting place, 23,408 opted for guided tours of the West Cemetery.

For cemeteries that request a fee or receive donations, this form of funding can be essential to their site’s upkeep. Highgate charges general visitors (but not grave owners) for admittance, explaining in its financial statement: “Highgate Cemetery is deservedly world famous as a heritage attraction and the revenue from visitors is crucial to the maintenance and enhancement of the Cemetery.”

The Cemetery Club

Sheldon Kingsley Goodman, the co-founder of the Cemetery Club blog, is an enthusiastic visitor of burial places in his home city of London and beyond. He and fellow enthusiasts campaign against the idea that burial grounds are morbid, calling them; “beautiful spaces which are now cradles for nature, heritage and remarkable stories that time has faded from common knowledge.” He told Funeral Service Times why his blog and tours encourage others to visit cemeteries.

“My interest in cemeteries started at quite a young age. Because both of my grandfathers had passed away at around the time I was born; every week we would pay our respects at their graves. Sundays were spent going to one of two places, either Bandon Hill Cemetery or Chiswick New Cemetery.

“The thing that fascinated me, as a young lad, was that was that we’d always go back to the same graves, yet we’d be surrounded by all these other monuments and tombs. I’d ask myself  ‘why do we always keep going to the same graves? Who are all these other people surrounding us?’ It was an interest that remained when I got older. About four years ago, my friend Christina Owen and I started the Cemetery Club blog to explore what histories were there. Christina has since left for new projects but now I and my friend Sam Perrin who is an experienced cemetery guide spend most weekends strolling among the stones, seeing what stories we can find.”

Why do you hope to achieve?

“One thing that I aim to do, with my blog and tours, is to challenge people’s perceptions. Cemeteries have a bit of an image crisis. For too long they’ve been viewed as places of sorrow and despair; I believe that’s partly a consequence of the First World War. Before that conflict it was quite acceptable to go to the cemetery for a nice afternoon stroll. Death featured in life far more back then, so I suppose it was less of a taboo to think about it and embrace it in everyday life.

“When the War eventually happened the ‘cosiness’ with the subject changed because we’d never experienced loss at such a level. Some families lost most if not all their men. Cemeteries become quite austere, sad places. It was seen as bad taste to erect big monuments – I daresay it also was getting more expensive, too – so it all became much quieter.

“It’s up to people such as myself to reintroduce people to places like Hampstead, Kensal Green and Brompton and the thousands buried there; to talk about their lives and do them justice. I’m essentially an ambassador. The people in the graves aren’t able to talk about themselves so I’ll happily do it on their behalf.”

Where do your tours take place?

“The Club’s main tour is around Tower Hamlet Cemetery, with a new tour around Hampstead debuting on June 24th. We’re in talks to do some with a couple of others, in Brighton, Abney Park and so on. The tours are a more interactive part of our blog and it’s great to meet readers and our flowers from Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

“To me, a cemetery is much as part of life as a maternity ward is so I don’t see why they should be perceived as spooky places. I think in some cases, Victorian pomp and circumstance is making a bit of a comeback with horses and carriages, certainly in the Chinese and Jamaican communities. It’s nice to share that with readers and people who come on the tours.”

How do you encourage visitors to behave in cemeteries?

“I try not to speak ill of the dead. If a person wasn’t always nice in life I obviously mention their failings – we all have failings – but I try to highlight the good that they achieved too. In terms of how you act in cemeteries, I think a lot of it is down to common sense. As long as you’re respectful, you don’t walk on people’s graves or desecrate them in any way it’s the perfect place to have a stroll and learn about our heritage.”

Do you have a favourite cemetery?

“I’d say the Brighton Extra Mural. It’s the Sussex equivalent of Highgate Cemetery and set in this really pretty little valley. You’ve got all of the old style tombs with a beautiful chapel and it’s not too far from the sea. It has an awful lot of Londoners buried there – presumably many had holiday homes nearby or retired to a place with a better environ than the big smoke. A virtually unknown gem of a cemetery.”

For more information go to cemeteryclub.co.uk.

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