Is it time we changed how we remember the dead?

One historian has been investigating the evolving attitudes towards our ultimate destination – and why the UK makes the ideal case study.

By Simon Ingram
photographs by Katie Thornton
Published 17 May 2019, 07:39 BST, Updated 30 Nov 2020, 12:13 GMT
Less space, rising costs and changing attitudes towards traditional burial in the UK is making many ...
Less space, rising costs and changing attitudes towards traditional burial in the UK is making many consider different options – and prompting the question of what to do with the memorial spaces that remain.
Photograph by Tim Gainey, Alamy

Roughly 600,000 people will die in the UK in 2019. Modern lives are busy, so what happens when those lives ends from a collective, cultural point of view probably isn’t on most people’s minds. You’ll have a funeral. It’ll be dealt with. Somehow, somewhere. Right?

Yet, for a subject so marginalised amongst the living, the memorialising and memory of the dead is an intrinsic part of cultures across the world – and a part that requires the upmost sensitivity both to talk about, let alone to change. But how will the living be remembered in the future, when we live in a present that’s seeing overflowing cemeteries, dwindling land resources, rising funeral costs and changing attitudes? And who will conserve the memory of those of previous generations – whose crumbling legacy lies in churchyards and cemeteries across the country – that forms such a critical part of our national heritage and aesthetic? 

Katie Thornton interviews Jeremy Routledge, co-director of Calling the Shots media studio and the Future Cemeteries project who worked with Bristol's Arnos Vale cemetery to create augmented reality animations of graveyard headstones.
Photograph by Dr John Troyer

Memory capacity 

Dwindling space in cemeteries is not a new problem. Some village churchyards across the UK literally bulge under the strain of what lies underneath, resembling – both physically and metaphorically – a carpet flung over possessions too precious to destroy, but not necessarily appealing enough to display. Here lie generations upon generations of villagers being laid to rest on locally beloved, consecrated ground by grateful and grieving loved ones. These churchyards often look quaint, but as a result of expansion of plots when living memory lapses and a slowly changing cast of gravestones, many conceal numbers that are staggering. For a back-of-an-envelope calculation, consider an English village of, say, 3,000 people. If that village fed even half that number into the local Parish churchyard every lifetime, taking into account a modest few hundred years of passing time and passing souls, and you're looking at an eternally resting population in excess of 5,000 in grounds often considerably smaller than a football field. Add in a period of increased mortality, a particularly venerable church, or a particularly large population – and that number starts to swell rapidly. And that’s in a village, where populations are modest and land more readily available. 

In cities, things are more complicated. There is the increased population to factor in, but also the cultural aspects of burial, the financial implications where space is at a premium, and the treasured but often crumbling historical legacy of past generations – not to mention the simple matter of real estate. City planners are forced to consider whether it is appropriate to give up land for those who in the most definitive sense are no longer active members of society. As historian Katie Thornton puts it: “many cities hardly have space to house the living, let alone the dead.” 

Katie Thornton: "The British's ever-evolving relationship to death is embodied in their tombstones. Skulls and other explicit representations of mortality were common on 18th century graves. But in the 19th and 20th century, the dying process became medicalised, industrialised, and depersonalised; with the onset of the “funeral industry,” death was removed from the home. Gravestone imagery changed accordingly—from an explicit recognition of death and a focus on the deceased, to images of grief and rebirth, and a focus on those left behind. This 1921 grave at Woking’s Brookwood Cemetery embodies the sentimentality of many 19th and 20th century memorials."
Photograph by Katie Thornton

The universal experience of death

Katie is a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellow and public historian, and much of her recent research – supported by the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Department of State – has focused on both practical and cultural attitudes towards the dead. Essentially, what we do with them and how we treat the spaces dedicated to their memory, both current and historic. Her Death in the Digital Age project concerns what are termed ‘deathscapes’ – graveyards, crematoriums and places to scatter ashes in the traditional sense. But increasingly her work is encompassing more progressive attitudes towards the deceased, and the people who spend time in and care for these places of rest. “Cemeteries are beautiful public libraries of stories, but they are not necessarily ecologically sustainable or culturally relevant.” Katie says. “I began this project to see how people are creatively adapting their memorial spaces and practices to fit a world that is increasingly urbanised, physically mobile, multicultural, secular, and digitally-documented.

“Many people feel disconnected from the idea of a local burial plot or cremation scattering area,” she continues. “Add to this the high cost of funerals and burial – and the fact that we have so many ways to digitally preserve memories – and many mourners are left without an appropriate physical space to go at a time of death. This leaves an enormous hole in their personal healing and in our future historic record. And yet, death is perhaps the most universal experience of all.”  

Minneapolis resident Katie’s recent case studies have been memorial spaces in Britain and Singapore. “Both are nations that I feel offer a glimpse into the direction much of the world is going - land-limited, dense, urbanised, multicultural,” she says. “I wanted to hear directly from those who are already creatively adapting their memorial landscapes, or creating entirely new places of memory.”

Cremation in the UK has soared since the first legal ceremony was performed in 1885. Today 77% of those who pass away are cremated, and are remembered with plaques such as these at Hutcliffe Wood Road Crematorium in Sheffield.
Photograph by Cofiant Images, Alamy

The ‘recycling’ option

Land is scarce in Singapore: the island nation packs over 5 million people into an area about the size of Anglesey. By necessity it has developed practises focussed on efficiency. Only one cemetery still accepts traditional burials, with other options being a space-friendly crypt burials, or large columbaria built to house urns and physical memorials, both for current Singapore residents. They also increasingly cater for exhumed, newly cremated remains from repurposed cemeteries around the island that have fallen victim to urban expansion.  

Here in Britain, cremation is by far the most common funeral practice, and represents the onward physical journey made by 77% of the departed. Considering the first legal cremation in the UK was only conducted in 1885 – a Mrs Jeannette Pickersgill, at Woking – this in itself represents something of a revolution. The Victorians favoured burial over cremation as many disliked the idea of burning, nagged by the worry that death may have been misdiagnosed, a not entirely unlikely circumstance at the time. Early cremations took over an hour, and it was some time before the practice caught on, with criticisms ranging from its ‘heathen’ nature, to it being a convenient way to destroy evidence of a potential murder. Eventually, for reasons of overcrowding and sanitary benefit, cremation became refined and more commonplace. 

In Singapore, chronic lack of land makes memorials such as those at the Pu Tong Ta Columbarium a space-efficient way of accommodating and memorialising the dead.
Photograph by Godong, Alamy
A second view of a Singapore Columbarium. Some of these facilities have been used to house the remains of exhumed remains from cemeteries repurposed for other use.
Photograph by Katie Thornton

In an inversion of attitude, today many shun earth burial today for the same emotional reasons: the idea of mortal remains enduring underground appears to be as unappealing today as being cremated was over a century ago. But both at a personal and societal level, there are other more practical and economic reasons. 

As suggested by a report commissioned by life insurance and pensions company Royal London, the reasons for modern cremation are likely to be driven by two interconnected factors – the increased average cost of a burial (£4,267) versus cremation (£3,247) and the associated cause: decreasing availability of plots for the purpose. 

This represents a problem for any society wishing to be culturally inclusive, as cremation is prohibited by certain religions. Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Jews do not allow cremation, and many Catholics prefer traditional interment – meaning a solution for whole-body burial must be a part of the future in any multi-faith Britain.

While in Scotland sensitive re-use of grave sites is permitted in certain circumstances, in England the laws surrounding the issue are complex, and the issue remains under review. Section 25 of the Burial Act 1857 prohibits the removal of buried remains from a burial site without a license granted by the government or the church upon which the remains are interred. Despite a legal grey area, some sites have pioneered workarounds such as so-called ‘lift and deepen’ burials – exhuming a coffin, deepening the grave to allow additional burials then re-interring the original occupant – which have been adopted elsewhere.

Increasingly, the land and methods being used for burial and final resting places is becoming more diverse. “I have found the UK to be quite progressive when it comes to burial and cremation,” says Katie Thornton. “Whereas some countries tightly control the sites at which ashes can be scattered, the UK is more lenient, allowing scattering to take place in locations that feel more personal to the deceased. I was also impressed with the popularity of natural burial in the UK, in which individuals can be buried, usually without a headstone, among wildflower meadows or forests.” But as time is making increasingly evident, it’s not just the space for future burials that must be considered: it’s the legacy of burials past, and its place as a part of Britain’s cultural fabric. Someone needs to care for these spaces – or decide what to sensitively do with them.

Gravestones that fail the strength-testing process are laid flat to prevent injury. But such safety precautions have given many cemeteries a look of disrepair. Though the graves pictured here are quite old, many of the collapsed stones are much newer, demonstrating a decrease in the quality of masonry.
Photograph by Katie Thornton
The progress of natural burial: a simple grave at Clandon Wood Nature Reserve & Natural Burial Ground in Surrey, UK.
Photograph by Sam Oaksey, Alamy

“Cemeteries are beautiful public libraries of stories, but they are not necessarily ecologically sustainable or culturally relevant.”

Katie Thornton

Re-imagining Britain’s ‘deathscapes’

Graveyards reached their opulent zenith in Victorian times, where the trend for grand monuments and mausoleums – ‘funerary architecture’ – created remarkable labyrinths of tributes, opulently crafted headstones and statues of mourning angels. Overcrowding and unclean conditions were a common problem. Many of these spaces are today celebrated, but others are in crises of conservation – leaving the uncomfortable question of how to sensitively conserve them in a manner conversant and proportional to modern requirements for space. And any decision made is likely to have implications for future generations interested in looking back further than the recently deceased, as Katie Thornton explains. 

“A large-scale shift away from cemeteries means we could lose many historic archives,” she says. “Cemetery records, books of remembrance, and the graves themselves, which are treasure troves of stories and art. Without new means of documentation and preservation, we risk losing generations of stories buried at cemeteries now to weathering, or urban expansion, as well as the stories of those who are living now, who may never have a headstone.”

So as time and technology develop, the solution to memorialising our loved ones in an ecologically and economically sustainable way could – indeed, needs to – change. “The people I have met throughout the course of this research are adapting deathscapes to make them more culturally relevant and ecologically sustainable spaces,” Katie says. “They are modifying traditional cemeteries to turn them into parks of memory, creating burial and cremation spaces that honour Britain’s multi-religious and non-religious communities, thinking creatively about more personalised approaches to the memorial process, and even making entirely new deathscapes - including virtual spaces.” This last concept involves a move away from the traditional, physical memorial and inevitably towards utilising our own digital footprints: the online information increasingly a part of our lives being mobilised as a method of remembrance after death.

Gallery: the endearing and touching life in Britain's churchyards

The future of remembrance

As part of her research in the UK, Katie visited several sites where, she says, she’s encountered a “progressive approach toward how we remember the dead.” Recording the thoughts of people who frequent, work in and care for historic cemeteries – such as Arnos Vale in Bristol and Highgate Cemetery in North London – she also visited Queen’s Park Rangers Football Club, where the owners have worked to allow ashes to be buried beneath the pitch. These, she concluded, demonstrate not just a changing way to remember but a shift in the willingness to confront death as an inescapable part of life. “During my research in the UK I met many artists, urban planners, cemetery staff, undertakers, volunteers, gravediggers, academics and more who were encouraging frank conversation about how and where we remember the dead in our changing world,” Katie says. “And conversations before a time of death about how the deceased would like to be remembered, and recognising that we have new tools at our disposal to record the dead. Things like digital technologies, augmented reality, the social media profiles of the deceased.”

So when your time comes, perhaps you will have a virtual headstone on a smartphone. Or an augmented reality epitaph using your social media profile, accessed in a space dedicated to remembrance. The use of modern technology in memorialising lost loved ones, and the preservation of our long-deceased in the interests of heritage is already being explored – so it would seem the future of death looks tentatively bright. Provided, that is, people embrace the subject. “I find that all it takes is an invitation, an acceptable space within which to have a conversation about death and memory, and people are often very eager and willing to talk.” Says Katie Thornton. “People just need a comfortable place to remember.”

Find out more about Katie Thornton here, or follow her on Instagram for news of upcoming work. 

Read more on the immortalising of mortal remains in the May issue of National Geographic, out now. 

Katie Thornton: "Sue Stearn and a team of dedicated volunteers reanimate and digitally document fading grave inscriptions at the Embsay village churchyard using Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) technology. RTI uses composite photography and strategically-placed lights to reveal text no longer visible to the human eye."
Photograph by Katie Thornton
Katie Thornton: "Just as headstones weather and crumble, digital memorials also have a shelf life. After adding augmented reality videos to headstones in Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery just six years ago, media-maker Jeremy Routledge and death academic Dr. John Troyer try in vain to reanimate an Augmented Reality story of the individual buried in this grave. In this instance, the stone had weathered too much to be recognized by the technology. Instead they used a photograph of the grave as it appeared six years ago. Just like physical cemeteries, digital cemeteries require maintenance."
Photograph by Katie Thornton

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