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Past abstracts

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Speaking up for the dead in Bukit Brown Cemetery: understanding contemporary civil society and its effectiveness in Singapore

See Mieng Tan (University of Edinburgh)

In the recent seven years, a new civil society initiative has emerged in Singapore with a purported ‘expectation of conservation’. ‘All Things Bukit Brown (atBB)’ emerged when the Singapore government announced in mid-2011 its plans to exhume a portion of the Bukit Brown Cemetery to make way for the construction of an eight-lane highway. atBB wanted to preserve the site and its rich heritage value. By combining efforts with other civil society groups and independent partners, atBB was successful in lobbying for the government to review its exhumation plan. Now, atBB continues to lobby for the preservation of the remaining cemetery grounds despite the government’s plan to fully clear the cemetery by 2022 for other development. This research aims to examine civil society in Singapore using the example of atBB. Specifically, the research hopes to answer the questions of: (1) What is civil society in Singapore? and (2) Is civil society effective in Singapore? The proposed research will focus on five key areas: (a) Civil society in Singapore, (b) Composition of civil society groups in Singapore, (c) Bukit Brown Cemetery, (d) Death disposal practices in Singapore and (e) Singapore’s socio-political landscape.


First and foremost a cemetery? How far is too far when generating income to save and protect a cemetery

Janine Marriott (Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust/University of Hertfordshire) 

As many 18th and 19th cemeteries are nearing capacity, their role as a public resource is changing.  Often neglected, mismanaged and in poor and dangerous condition, their perceived redundancy can put these burial sites in danger of development, demolition and neglect due to financial and social concerns. Visitors, family and local community often wish to retain and protect these spaces; but income generation is key to survival.  In order to make money to keep sites open, improve them and encourage new visitors there are several types of public engagement and income generating activities that are now happening in UK and Irish cemeteries.  Through my research I have been looking at different sites, identifying activities, and assessing how far stakeholders will allow these sites to go with their activities.  How and what is deemed suitable varies greatly depending on type and location.   A variety of factors around size, building types and ownerships structure also influences what is possible in a site. This paper seeks to explore how the success (and failure) of these activities in cemeteries can help other sites to develop sustainable income streams, to help them survive and thrive. 


More than a place of death: Fossvogskirkjugarður (Fossvogs Cemetery) as heterotopia

Hörn Arnarsdóttir & Arnar Árnason (University of Aberdeen) 

This paper examines the experiences of horticulturists and teenage summer staff working in Fossvogskirkjugarður, a cemetery in Reykjavík, Iceland. Cemeteries in Reykjavík are unusual in that they hire teenage staff to garden and maintain the cemetery during the summer period. In this cultivation of the cemetery, Fossvogskirkjugarður is framed as more than a place of death. It is a place of different meanings and practices as staff encourage recreational use of the space and the valorisation of the cemetery as a natural oasis, while it remains a location of memorialisation and the expression of grief. In this paper we thus examine Fossvogskirkjugarður as a place of life, a place of memory, a place of grief and a place of cultivated interaction with nature. We argue that Fossvogskirkjugarður is a highly heterotopian place where notions of life and death, nature and culture, private and public collide.


‘Whisper to me things unfelt before’: epitaphic context in the nineteenth-century garden cemetery

Heather Scott (University College, London) 

The Victorian epitaph was borne out of the values of religiosity, perpetuity, and philosophic reform, whereby visionaries like Johnson, Godwin, and Wordsworth probed the significance of written sepulchre, and poets like Keble and Tennyson provided the seminal mourning texts of the era. However, this rich cultural context with which the Victorians were situationally privileged was not obviously discernible in the extant tributes we find etched on slabs within the cemeteries. I endeavour to contrast the day’s philosophical analysis and related literary landscape of epitaphs with a study of the prevailing customs governing Victorian epitaphs in practice, largely emblematic of a more quotidian memorialisation. This paper will explore epitaphic commemoration in the nineteenth-century garden cemetery and will present them in terms of their origins, their implications for culture and history, and as texts in themselves.


‘Gone to a foreign land to die’ : memorialising  WW1 dead on family headstones.

Ivor Perry (University of Durham)

This paper is drawn from a case study which in turn forms part of a larger project on the religiosity of ordinary people in WW1, as seen through their headstones. The bulk of the project data lies in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC ) headstones, which form the first, mass, collection of British headstone inscriptions. The study of CWGC headstone Personal Inscriptions is itself threaded through with evidential problems, and contested information. For example, present research suggests that around 50% of identifiable graves have no inscription at all. A number of reasons have been suggested, including the possibility that other forms of memorialisation, such as In Memoriam notices in the local newspaper, were regarded as preferable. One such form of memorialisation was to include the name of the casualty on the family gravestone at home. The discussion, a subset of the case study, focuses on five casualties remembered in the cemetery of their home village. It considers the village demographics, the roots of the ‘popular’ religiosity of the time, and brings together the official memorialisation on CWGC headstones and memorials, with the expressions of loss and grief on the family headstones. Additionally, it considers the ‘civilian’ elements of the headstones, and points towards an evolving religiosity in the village in the years between 1900 and 1930.


The materiality and spatiality of graves and grave markers in the Luxembourg-German Border Region: preliminary findings

Christoph K. Streb (University of Luxemboug/Durham University) 

This paper aims to summarize the preliminary findings of a PhD research project analysing the materiality and spatiality of graves and grave markers on four selected cemeteries in the Luxembourg-German border region. By collecting an extensive set of data of the contemporary assemblage visible on these cemeteries and by analysing it statistically and geo-spatially, it is the intention to understand how this particular material and spatial assemblage came to be and, moreover, what historical archaeologists can learn from such data about the recent past. This is relevant, as this particular field of research assumes that it is possible to learn about past socio-cultural and socio-economic phenomena and their chronological development by studying related artefacts visible on cemeteries. While the exact nature of such potential explanatory power is disputed in research, the author of this PhD thesis emphasizes that such approaches would require a more precise knowledge about how these artefacts came to be within their particular spatial context. Only if one understands this genesis, the meaning of such assemblage can be judged. The preliminary findings to be presented include a descriptive statistical analysis of the collected data and a geo-spatial visualization, and analysis of the actual distribution of artefacts within the cemeteries, across national and natural borders. They allow hypothesizing ‘neighbouring and emulation’ effects regarding the choice of material and design of grave-markers and provide indications for further research into related conventions, fashion, consumerism and practicability in grave and grave marker design. 


Flowers on graves in Wales

Michael Freeman (National Museum of Wales) 

A very detailed study of about 1500 accounts of tours of Wales has shown that the custom of placing of flowers on graves was practiced over most of Wales probably as early as the 17th century and definitely during the 18th and 19th centuries. There is very little evidence for this custom in England, Scotland and Ireland until it became popular in England from the 1830s, probably as a result of the opening of large non-denominational cemeteries on the edge of towns. There were two distinct customs relating to the placing of plants and/or flowers on graves in Wales. The first was practiced immediately after burial and then at intervals afterwards. The second custom was practiced on the Saturday before Palm Sunday (Sul y Blodau, flowering Sunday) or occasionally for Easter Sunday and Whitsunday. This seems to have become very popular in south-east Wales and just over the border in England from the middle of the 19th century. By the early 20th century, it appears to have spread into much of Wales where it is still practiced today, but apparently not in England.


Forever young? Spaces of burial, cremation and memorialisation of children

Elsbeth Robson, Julie Seymour & Trish Green (University of Hull)

The death of children is memorialised variously across cultures and generation, having moved beyond the cemetery in recent decades. When a child dies today there may be multiple material sites of remembrance – the home, the roadside following traffic fatalities, the school gates, central public places, online virtual memorials, as well as traditionally-commemorated places of burial such as cemeteries, graveyards and gardens of remembrance. This exploratory paper uses a spatial lens to seek to understand changing spaces and family practices associated with the public memorialisation of infants and children in urban England. The contribution will present preliminary documentation of public spatial expressions of remembering untold private stories of childhood loss at the interface of children’s geographies and death studies. Using ethnography, photography and interview extracts the authors will demonstrate some preliminary mapping of particular commemorative and memorial spaces of children in Hull – a city with histories of loss and socio-economic deprivation associated with higher infant /child death rates. By documenting how intimate embodied loss and remembering are commemorated in public spaces we seek to understand the changing spaces and practices of burial, cremation and memorialisation of children in the twentieth and twenty-first century. The research builds on previous studies by geographers that have initiated study of the spatialities of death, mourning and remembrance, bringing to the fore acknowledgement of how death and dying are intensely anchored in place and space. Some suggestions will be made relating to guidance on managing conflict in cemeteries over memorialisation of graves of infants and children.


The Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act 2016: What happens next?

Susan Buckham (University of Stirling)

Drawing from consultation responses and the policy guidance currently in progress, this paper will explore the likely short-term impact of the 2016 Scottish Burial and Cremation (Scotland) Act on cemetery management practices. In 2016, the Scottish Government updated the primary legislation governing burial and cemetery management. This Act ended the tradition of burial in perpetuity, enabled grave reuse and sought to clarify procedures for burial authorities to deal with ‘ownerless’ graves and gravestones across all types of burial sites. Consequently, Scotland is the first country within the UK where grave reuse can take place across a range of burial sites. This includes historic churchyards, private family burial grounds and private and municipal cemeteries. Yet the implications of the Act are far from clear for cemetery management. The 2014 consultation prior to the introduction of the 2016 Act indicated mixed support among local authorities for the new measures, notable grave reuse. Only a small number of responses involved members of the ‘general public’, who also indicated a strong disinclination towards disturbing human remains. Another major issue in understanding the implications of the new law in practice lies in the fact that the 2016 Act is enabling legislation that lacks detailed information on how it will operate in practice. Presently the Scottish Government is developing a programme of guidance to frame how legislation will be implemented. However, the only topic completed to date is memorial health & safety. This paper will assess the strengths and weaknesses within the process of introducing the new burial legislation. I will seek to highlight where the main areas of uncertainty lie, highlight tensions between centrally-led change and local implementation and suggest which issues are the highest priorities to address going forward.


The Third Cemetery of Athens: methodology and conceptualization

Ioanna Paraskevopoulou (Harokopio University, Athens)

The Third cemetery of Athens (Greece) is an ordinary, fully-operating public cemetery. It was established in 1938; it is the third and last cemetery owned and managed by the Municipality of Athens; the only one located at the west side of the city; and the city’s biggest cemetery, the massive cemetery of the metropolis. This paper is based on primary sources data (Laws, Regulations, City Council minutes [1936-2003]) gathered and studied during the first year of the PhD research on the Third cemetery. Findings’ qualitative characteristics and discursive perspective are presented according to an interpretative methodology that emerged from the classification of data collected so far. The latter indicates the cemetery’s multilayered structure, highlighting three scales - Public, Private, Other - that define its organization and functions. The first scale refers to the authorities and has to do with laws, policies and top-down decisions regarding the cemetery; the second one refers to the individuals and has to do with monuments, rituals and bottom-up practices. The third scale refers to everything that is left out of the regulated, distinct jurisdiction of the other two scales, representing the ‘other’, the very space where any type of otherness is placed. This paper presents the thematic allocation of data according the aforementioned scales. The aim is to investigate if this triaxial structure can indeed interpret the cemetery’s physicality and philosophy, place and space-time, conveying the whole range of facts, practices, figures and values that, through their presence or absence, conceptualize a deathscape.


Past Abstracts from 2005-2019 can be found here:  Past Abstracts 2005-19 (PDF , 547kb)