The great company cemeteries of the early Victorian period attract a great deal of attention, but the major push to bring decent burial to Britain’s industrial towns and cities followed the Burial Acts of 1852-7, which recognised that most people couldn’t afford the fees of the cemeteries companies, and empowered local authorities to provide dignified burial facilities for all.
In most towns this led to the establishment of an elective Burial Board, backed by the power to levy rates and led by local figures who knew, and felt a responsibility to, their local community.
This meant that overcrowded, insanitary churchyards could be closed. It also enabled Roman Catholics and Nonconformists to be interred by their own clergy, rather than by the local Church of England priest.
I recently visited my local Victorian municipal burial ground, Burngreave Cemetery, Sheffield, which has a small but active Friends’ group: http://www.friendsofburngreavecemetery.btck.co.uk.
The cemetery was opened in 1861, and extended by Sheffield Corporation when they took over from the Burial Board in 1900. It’s still open for burials in existing graves, and the magnificent chapels by Flockton & Son are intact and listed, but in urgent need of weather-proofing and restoration.
In more prosperous times a company called Creative Outpost devised a grandiose restoration scheme but it seems to have closed down: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Creative-outpost-sheffield-located-at-Burngreave-chapels/166750873081.
This leaves the Friends seeking fresh support, expertise and – most of all – funds. They’ve digitised the cemetery records to provide an invaluable service locating graves for relatives and descendants, and they’ve begun a detailed study of some of their more celebrated “residents”: http://www.friendsofburngreavecemetery.btck.co.uk/Residents.
They open the chapels as often as possible on Sunday mornings, and they serve as a link between the local community and the council’s Bereavement Services department.
Their existence is the vital factor that keeps Burngreave Cemetery safe and civilised, and encourages its use as a place to walk, jog and enjoy the fresh air in a built-up area that is not blessed with many amenities.
Every cemetery deserves friends like the Friends of Burngreave Cemetery. The co-ordinating body for such organisations is the National Federation of Cemetery Friends: http://cemeteryfriends.org.uk.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Victorian Cemeteries, please click here.