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Rebecca Barrett and Jenifer White


ROM THE Arcadian serenity

of Kensal Green Cemetery

(one of London’s ‘Magnificent

Seven’) to the traditional Islamic

garden of Woking’s Muslim Burial

Ground, cemeteries are places of

tranquillity and remembrance. They are

biographies of local communities and

help to tell the stories of individuals,

their lives, beliefs and fashions.

In England, over 100 cemeteries are

now included in the Register of Parks

and Gardens of Special Historic Interest

for their landscape design. Countless

others have individual monuments or

structures which are listed. Historic

England (HE) champions these special

places by seeking to understand their

importance and by protecting them,

sharing their stories and helping to find

ways to conserve them for all to enjoy.


Every community in the UK, past or

present, has a burial ground. They

come in all shapes and sizes – ancient

barrows, burial pits associated with

historic epidemics, modest rural and

urban churchyards, ambitious Victorian

cemeteries with picturesque landscapes

and 20th-century military burial grounds

with a dignified uniformity. They are

special sanctuaries for the dead and those

who mourn them; quiet places to relax

and meditate.

The modern history of our cemeteries

can be traced back to the mid-17th

century. With traditional churchyards

reaching capacity and growing concerns

about unsanitary conditions, there was

a revival of the ancient Roman idea of

siting burial grounds on the outskirts of

towns. Bartholomew’s Yard burial ground

in Exeter, which opened in 1637 (and is

now a Grade II* registered landscape),

was one of the first. It was almost another

200 years, however, before the first public

cemetery opened in Norwich (The Rosary,

also Grade II* registered).

Many of the early cemetery companies

were set up by dissenters interested

in creating burial spaces which were

independent of the established church.

It was private enterprise, however, that

provided the first public cemetery in

the capital – Kensal Green Cemetery

(also known as All Souls Cemetery),

which opened in 1833. In 1850


Metropolitan Interment Act

provided an

alternative, allowing for publicly funded

cemeteries in London. This model was

extended across the country just three

years later, leading to a boom in the

construction of public cemeteries.

These Victorian cemeteries reveal

much about the fashions and practices of

the time, often borrowing from eminent

designers such as Humphry Repton.

Indeed, many cemeteries from this period

were laid out in the picturesque style, with

ceremonial routes for funeral cortèges,

returning meandering paths, serpentine

lines of trees and carefully planned

vistas. These cemeteries were also rich

in architecture and sculpture. Grand

chapels were often placed at the heart of

the designed landscape, with lodges, gates

and boundary walls providing a secure

haven. Monuments were positioned

with equal care. Their design reflected

the interests and status of those interred

while reminding the visitor of the greater

Arcadian vision for the cemetery.

Cemetery design continued to

develop during the 20th century in

response to changing fashions and

the growing number of cremations.

Examples of fine sculpture in Brookwood Cemetery, Woking – the largest cemetery in western Europe (All photos: Historic England)