Thursday, 18 August 2011

North Walsham - The quick and the dead

House and shop
encroach on the
© Godric Godricson

There is something very urban in nature about the ways in which cemeteries (set aside for the dead) are  paradoxically sometimes close to the places where we live and shop. Europe has many experiences of  spaces originally occupied by the dead becoming colonised  and encroached upon by the living. This juxtapositioning is nothing new and we can see examples throughout the ages and across the continent.

The most apparent problem for cemeteries is the way they are ‘nibbled away’ by growing populations and the development of towns. Cemeteries are sometimes reduced in size by road widening, the development of railways and by the re-modelling of Church buildings themselves. Cemeteries are always seen as being a resting place for eternity although the idea of eternity changes all the time.

The living move into the cemetery
© Godric Godricson

So, how do we find the places where the living now encroach on the dead? Well, there is archive based research and the well designed archives in Norwich have a splendid collection of papers relating to the parish Churches in the County. It is possible to trace the changing shape of cemeteries whereby parish cemeteries have grown by the acquisition of new land. This growth of cemeteries happens most often in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The story of cemetery growth in London is expanded on and developed in an excellent web site on cemeteries and the experience of London  In this site we can see an exploration of the urban experience in which the living encroach on the dead. The article relating to St. Martin’s le Grand and the finding of ‘lost tombs’ is a metaphor for the experience of town dwellers and their relationship with the dead and cemeteries. This site goes on to describe the growth and expansion of the living……..

Three years later, the cemetery was consecrated by Beilby Porteous, the Bishop of London. But its life was not a peaceful one: someone always had their eyes on this desirable bit of land. In 1817, permission was granted to build almshouses on an unused part of the ground: these survive to this day. In 1854, further permission was granted for development on the site, including demolition of the existing buildings.”

Clearly, urban communities have always ebbed and flowed in size and design and although London as a capital city is not typical;  it is an excellent example of the means by which cemeteries have developed. London is an example of how cemeteries change their shape and change their function within the town. Equally, it is clear from London’s experience that cemeteries may also disappear from the landscape of the town and be covered up by later development.

Whilst the experience of London gives a clear example of how cemeteries are eclipsed by later urban development we can also see how smaller towns also have a similar experience and response to change and development.

The living ignore the dead
© Godric Godricson

Even Saint Nicholas Church  which sits at the heart of the original Saxon town of North Walsham has an experience of change. From an early date,  houses and shops moved onto the original cemetery site and took up residence. The town hemmed the Church into its current space and then proved to be a greedy neighbour. Doors opened to the rear of properties onto the cemetery and the living used the consecrated space. Pathways were cut across the cemetery as one side of the town connected itself with the other. Eventually, the headstones themselves were destroyed or removed and cleared away by the ever eager Anglican Authorities who are always  ready to turn their cemetery into an 'easy-care' parkland. The Authorities have been so ruthless that this urban park is totally clear of memorials on one side of the building and on the other side the memorials are neatly laid out and used as regimented boundary markers.  The memorials are separated from the original burial and any meaningful narrative is destroyed.

The shops in the small town have taken over from small houses and the properties, often one room wide,  creep into the Church yard presumably with the permission of the Authorities in the 17th Century and before that. The former Authorities connived at this ‘encroachment’ and witnessed the confrontation of the living and the dead.

Young couples recline on the roughly cut grass on hot sunny days in the shadow of the ruined tower as if they were in a Victorian municipal park and yet under their feet are a thousand years of burials. The cemetery forms little more than an urban open space. The development of a soulless concrete shopping precinct to one side of the cemetery only makes the situation worse as the concrete and steel of the new development hems the cemetery into its place without sympathetically reflecting the original purpose of the site or referencing the departed that lay in repose so close by.

Up to the kitchen wall
© Godric Godricson

The experience of North Walsham is not unique and has many of the dynamics seen in other urban cemeteries. There is probably folly, greed and desperation forming  human decision making relating to the cemetery and it has to be acknowledged that contemporary Church Authorities do at least ensure that the Church is open during the day and that the Church is open to receive visitors.

In North Walsham,  we can see the living and dead sharing an intimate geographical place. Even if the departed are forgotten as individuals and ancestors; they cannot be ignored completely  as they cling onto their place within the town environment and their own limited share in immortality.

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