Thursday, 12 January 2012

Gressenhall and lost graves

The idea of poverty was frightening in the 19th Century. In an historical epoch without the benefits of social security  it must have been more repellent to think of being poor and being buried in the workhouse. I understand that people did not have to be buried in the workhouse and there is evidence of people being transported for burial to their parish of origin.

I’m also sure that the Authorities actually encouraged communities and the next of kin to take responsibility for the dead. We can imagine the book keepers in the workhouse keeping a tally of the costs involved in providing a funeral and a gasp of excitement at the thought of saving a few pennies.

The lives of people who did found themselves eventually buried in the workhouse are almost always lost to view and without markers unless they feature in some form of theatrical tableaux or social reconstruction . Yes, there will be the dry as dust paper records that exist in the record offices of the UK although the physical markers of a grave are often absent. Without a marker and weighed down by the shame of poverty it is likely that many graves have never been visited or the people occupying the grave actually mourned. Such is the way of poverty, death and burial in a land that perceives itself as being rich and vibrant and where poverty was a crime.

In reality, the workhouses that were built up and down the the United Kingdom do have cemeteries attached to them although most people have no idea of this relationship. The workhouse cemetery is shrouded in secrecy and uncertainty. The dead reside in that half world based in reality and yet the cemetery is clothed in anxiety and fear.

Gressenhall, [1] [2] in Mid-Norfolk is a wonderful example of a former workhouse that now actively serves the people of Norfolk in a number of ways. Gressenhall is a place where the poor were transported and where they died of old age, disease and general infirmity. The Ordnance Survey maps are available and they record the presence of the cemetery so there is not doubt that it is there. A map published in 1884 shows the cemetery to the west of the site.  The second map, published in 1906,   shows the burial ground as being disused at that point. More importantly, a map published in 1978 shows the cemetery as an orchard (from the 1920's ?) and we see the life cycle of the cemetery moving from burial site to recreational area. The dead, who are without monuments, occupy a  space that eventually becomes a public area and a place for play.

The idea of poverty is so difficult that the dead who actually died in poverty  have less rights to memorials than the living and they disappear from history and collective re-collection. Have a look at the story of burials in Swaffham now under the garden of a somestic property.

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