Class and taste wars in Britain’s cemeteries

Interesting item on the BBC website: Should graveyard wind chimes and plastic displays be banned? Those of us who spend any amount of time in cemeteries (and it comes with the job for clergy) will have observed the proliferation of windmills, plastic ornaments and toys, particularly on children’s graves. Things have got so out of hand at one cemetery in Colchester (dubbed the “Poundland Cemetery” by the Daily Mail) that the local authority has given an ultimatum to relatives to remove excessive adornments and trinkets.

Sociologists have noted that the elaboration of cemetery and roadside shrines marks a cultural change to death and grieving. As so often in Britain, there is also an element of class conflict. The BBC article quotes Tony Walter, professor of death studies [!] at the University of Bath:

“Taste wars have broken out in the British cemetery, and these taste wars are to some extent class wars… It is generally different social classes who go for minimal grave inscriptions and flowers planted for minimal maintenance on the one hand, or who go for photos, teddy bears, wind chimes, plastic flowers, real flowers left in their cellophane wrappers etc, on the other hand.”

All this presents a real dilemma for the authorities running Britain’s cemeteries, trying to respect the wishes of grieving parents but also other users of the cemetery who find such ornaments intrusive.

One person questioning the purpose of such exuberant graveside displays is Bel Mooney, who has lost a child herself and been involved in setting up councilling services for bereaved parents. She comments

“I stress that my intention is never to judge, but to ask – simply – who are the displays for? Does it actually help the grieving process, or make things worse in the long run?”

The problem is, as she points out in an excellent article in the Daily Mail (which includes several photographs to illustrate the phenomenon, some of which I find rather disturbing), that cemeteries are public, shared places. Different people express their grief in different ways. But ultimately, as Bel points out

“There has to be consideration for others, since, in matters of life and death, we’re all in this together.”


About Holloway Rev

Paul Weary is a Methodist minister living and working in Holloway, North London.
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