Western Cemetery, Hull
Western Cemetery, Hull © Historic England Archive
Western Cemetery, Hull © Historic England Archive

The Importance of Historic Cemeteries and Burial Grounds

The combination of architecture, sculpture, landscape, wildlife and poetry makes cemeteries like no other place in the historic environment. This page provides advice on the historic importance of cemeteries, and in particular Victorian cemeteries.

Cemeteries were conceived and designed both as gardens of the dead and as a memorial. The inscription on memorials, the design of monuments, the choice of stones, the architecture of building and landscape design shed light on past social customs and events, and combine to make a cemetery an irreplaceable historical resource. As an important record of the social history of the area, each cemetery is also the biography of its community. Many cemeteries include both consecrated and non-consecrated sections, and some cemeteries are dedicated to a particular faith.

Many of our historic cemeteries are still being used for the business of burying and mourning. They are valued as places for quiet reflection, as green spaces, and for their wildlife interest.

The history of cemetery and crematoria design

The development of cemeteries in the mid-19th century reflects the unsavoury and unsanitary nature of urban churchyards. They had become overcrowded with burials, and there was a desire for alternative burial grounds. The cemetery developers (and many were local authorities) commissioned leading architects and designers to layout the cemetery landscapes and build chapels, lodges, gates and walls. As esteemed places, families also commissioned grand monuments, with fine sculpture and beautiful stones. There is a strong link between the design of cemeteries and Victorian public parks, hence the garden character of these last resting places for the dead. The tradition continued with the design of the crematoria landscapes into the 20th century.

The history of cemetery and crematoria development is summarised in our publication Landscapes of Remembrance. It also includes suggestions for further reading on the history of cemeteries.

The history of cemetery and churchyard monuments

Few very early monuments survive. Medieval outdoor tombs and 17th-century headstones are rare. From the Georgian period onwards, churchyard funerary monuments abound. The opening of new cemeteries in the 19th century created new opportunities, and large tombs and memorials became more affordable. A wider range of stones was also available. From the turn of the 20th century, memorials and monuments reflect a shift in fashion and taste towards simpler and more uniform structures. Ideas continue to evolve. More elaborate gravestones and large tombs seem to be emerging again and black granites often dominate. The history of funerary monuments is outlined in our publication Commemorative Structures.

War memorials and Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves

Many cemeteries and churchyards include war memorials and Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) graves of the men and women of the armed forces who died in the First and Second World Wars. Our Joint Policy Statement with the CWGC sets out a shared understanding on how the CWGC’s war cemeteries and their buildings are cared for and managed in England. The statement also serves as guidance for local authority planning, conservation and highways officers; local amenity societies; and local communities. Our technical guidance page Looking After War Memorials provides detailed advice on their conservation and management.

Listing of cemeteries and grave monuments

Cemeteries of national interest for their landscape design are registered. Our Selection Guide sets out the criteria for this designation. There is also guidance on Anglo-Jewish Burial Grounds. In 2018, we published a list of the 116 registered cemeteries, their dates, designers and the reasons for designation for ease of reference (more have been added since 2018). The registered sites are mostly 19th-century cemeteries, but there are a few earlier examples like Bunhill Fields in London and some late 20th-century designs like Salisbury Crematoria. More crematoria are likely to be considered for registration as designed landscapes of special historic interest, but so far there are only a few that have been designated. Cemetery buildings and features like gates and walls may also be listed.

Monuments, memorials, gravestones and mausolea notable for the quality of their design, sculpture, materials or interest of the commemorated person or epitaph may be listed too. Our Selection Guide: Commemorative Structures explains the listing criteria.

Some cemeteries and burial grounds are important features in Conservation Areas.

These designated sites, buildings and monuments are protected from alteration, demolition or inappropriate development on neighbouring sites that impact their curtilage and setting. Statutory consents may also be necessary including any works to trees. If consecrated grounds, permission may be required from the denomination’s relevant advisory committee.

Wildlife and habitats in cemeteries and churchyards

As well as being a place for people, burial grounds can also be a haven for wildlife. Cemeteries, churchyards and burial places are often included in local habitat action plans looking at wildlife conservation priorities.

Carved out from the Victorian countryside on the edge of towns, interesting wild flowers can be found in some cemeteries.

Caring for God’s Acre is a non-religious charity dedicated to conserving and celebrating burial grounds and encouraging a holistic approach to management. They provide lots of useful information, resource packs and case studies on protecting wildlife, heritage and involving people in all types of burial grounds from urban cemeteries to rural churchyards. The Field Studies Council guides to Wildlife of Burial Grounds, and Churchyard Lichens are useful.

Some animals, plants, trees and habitats may be protected by law and advice should be sought. Conservation and maintenance work should be carefully planned to not disturb bats, nesting birds and other wildlife. For more advice see our technical guidance web pages.

Geological interest of cemeteries

Cemeteries are often great places to study different stone types and their characteristics. Weathered limestones may reveal embedded fossils. Sandstone memorials often show the geological sedimentary layers and structures. Cemeteries include examples of late 19th century memorials made of decorative and durable granites from Cornwall, the Lake District and Scotland which could be transported by the new railways. Metamorphic rocks like gneisses and migmatites are also used for monuments.

Online you can find several examples of cemeteries being used for teaching and some cemeteries offer geology guides.

Green Infrastructure value of cemeteries and churchyards

Cemeteries, churchyards and burial grounds are part of a network of green spaces in towns and cities called Green Infrastructure. They offer special places for quiet, reflection and contemplation; and like other green spaces have an important role in mitigating effects of climate change.

Recording cemeteries, churchyards and burial grounds, monuments and memorials

There are many recording projects, from individual family historians to friends and community groups.

  • Burial Space Research Database: The University of York ‘Discovering England’s Burial Spaces’ project, funded by Historic England, worked with community groups to design and test resources to help people to record burial spaces like churchyards and cemeteries. A new standardised methodology for surveying was developed so that datasets from different surveys can be compared with one another to reveal trends and patterns in the history commemoration.

    The Burial Space Research Database enables groups conducting research into burial spaces to safeguard their research in perpetuity and share findings freely with the general public and other researchers. The online form can be used to add a record to the national Online Index for Archaeological Investigations (OASIS). Using OASIS, heritage bodies and organisations that care for burial spaces, such as Historic Environment Record officers, are able to see when a survey has taken place. This ensures that findings from community-led research will support scholarship and inform future development.
  • National Burial Ground Survey (Anglican burial grounds): The Church of England, with support from Historic England and other partners, including Caring for Gods Acre, has created a digital map and database of all burial grounds in England. The National Burial Grounds Survey is now underway for all Anglican burial grounds, diocese by diocese (August 2021). It is recording in detail the grave memorials and ecology of churchyards and linking these with other resources through the Church Heritage Record.

Other links of interest