“My obsession with cemeteries began as a young child,” says Jeane Trend Hill, a blonde woman whose welcoming smile makes it difficult to guess her occupation. She defines herself as a Cemetery Historian and goes by the given nickname of Jeane Headstone Hunter. An expert in mortuary science, she spends much of her time photographing burial architectures and writing about places of eternal rest.
The Victorian Age is a gold mine for her work, for the Victorians had a very close relationship with death. “In Victorian times, your funeral was the most important day of your life. Graves and catacombs were regularly visited and a stroll and picnic around the local cemetery was the norm.”
This is not the case any more: death has become something we try not to dwell too much upon. But as an increasing number of people are developing an interest in Victorian cemeteries for their history and romantic beauty, cemetery tourism may be a different, contemporary way of facing death.
Jeane says that cemeteries are slowly being turned into public spaces and that people’s perceptions are changing. “Many run workshops or events to get children involved, such as art or bug hunts. A trip to the cemetery can become a day out for a young family. The term ‘park’ makes it sound more like somewhere you would want to take children.
“There are usually work or gardening days for adults where people can become involved, socialise and feel as though they are doing some good. Preservation is very important and being around the dead becomes more acceptable.”
The most fascinating cemeteries in London were built in the 1830s, when the population was growing and the small parish churchyards of the city became insufficient. The so called Magnificent Seven were established in a ring just outside London, in Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Nunhead, Brompton and Tower Hamlets. After some decades of neglect in the aftermath of the Second War World, all of them are now the object of conservation projects and are visited by thousands of people every year.
Highgate Cemetery is probably the most famous one; Karl Marx and Douglas Adams are buried there. Between September 2015 and August 2016, more than 85,000 people visited it, 5 per cent more than the previous year. It is run as a charity, with every pound of the ticket reinvested into conservation.
Nearly 200 people are registered as volunteers with the Friends of Highgate Cemeteries. Sarah Tregonning works at the till every Friday morning and thinks that the increased interest in death says something about the way we deal with it.
“People are generally very scared of death, it is something we like to ignore. But we are also fascinated by it. We like to have a creepy tour, spend an hour in the catacombs and then go home safe,” she says.
Most tourists only visit cemeteries very occasionally. But others have developed a more enduring interest in tombs and gravestones. Sheldon Goodman and Sam Perrin run a blog for the so-called “taphophiles”, in which they tell all kinds of stories about cemeteries and people buried in them. The Cemetery Club has 2,700 followers on Twitter.
Sheldon agrees that Victorian cemeteries can help people to look at death more serenely. “The landscape out there for interpreting cemeteries as more than places to put the dead has changed. As people like myself connect over social media, the values of yesteryear where cemeteries shouldn’t be sad places but hubs of history and heritage are coming back.
“I think the bigger challenge is realising the mantra I often go by, which is ‘you’re born, you live, you die.’ The maternity ward is as much a part of life as a cemetery yet how they are both viewed, generally, are worlds apart. Why? Death is no surprise. We all have a limited time on this planet.”
Cemetery tourism and its relationship with death has become an object of study and research in universities. According to Dr Philip Stone, Executive Director at the Institute for Dark Tourism Research of University of Central Lancashire, there are a number of institutions in secular society that link the dead with the living. Cemetery tourism is one of them.
“It mediates through education and memorialisation and, in so doing, brings death back into the public domain for popular culture consumption,” says Dr Stone.
“Death, like sun, cannot be looked at steadily,” famously said François de la Rochefoucauld in the XVII century. In an age when religion is not at the core of our society any more, cemetery tourism might be one of the ways we glance at it without being blinded.