I have never taken much interest in graveyards. It has always seemed to me that placing a loved one in a box to rot six feet underground is odd. Not that some graveyards do not have grandeur. The Arlington War Cemetery outside of Washington DC, USA, being amongst the finest. Manicured lawns, gleaming white headstones, concise inscriptions all imbue the place with a dignity and beauty. Sited by the Potomac river, overlooking the capital, it cannot fail to impress.
My paternal grandparents had died before I reached adulthood. We lived far away and were occasional visitors. I was aware that they had been buried locally, but had never visited the grave, which I had been told was periodically attended to by the plethora of relatives who live in the area.
Some weeks ago an acquaintance had called to my home, distressed at the loss of her father many years ago. She confided that in moments of despair she would visit his grave in the small hours, lay down by the grave, and beg for her life to be taken so she could be reunited with her father. Cemeteries are places of profound emotion.
I was visiting relatives in Swansea, and a spare hour or so opened up in which my brother and I had nothing to do, so we resolved to pay the visit, which for me, was long overdue.
Although I am not a great supporter of cemeteries, I recognise their place. Many do find it a comfort to visit the resting places of loved ones. They can also be a tranquil oasis of peace, and places for reflection. Sombre but with understated beauty. The latter is not true of Bethel Cemetery. Upon arrival, I was shocked at what I found.
What confronted me was a sprawling, tangled mess of dilapidation, abandonment, and ruin. It looked like a set from a horror film. Instead it was reality in the midday sun. All of the cemetery was unkempt. The worst looked as though it had been subject to a crazed rampage by vandals. Headstones had toppled, monuments listed at acute angles, graves had collapsed. But this was not the work of vandals, it was the consequence of neglect.
Yet even worse lay beyond the visible evidence of institutional indolence. Vast swathes of headstones had been consumed by overgrowing vegetation, consumed like a lost chapter from “Day of the Triffids”. The rough maintenance that was evident involved crude scything of long grass and weed only. Headstone facings had disappeared leaving no hint of who was buried there. Paths were apparent only by trampled use, cuttings and vegetative debris lay where it had been cut. It was not what I had expected. I did find my grandparent’s grave. Thanks I suspect to relatives, the grave itself looked respectable, the surroundings were not. They were a miserable, depressing, mess.
On a practical level, I can guess at some of the issues. Cemeteries became popular in Victorian times . Urban burial grounds in the 19th century were originally envisaged as public open spaces, and were professionally designed to be attractive places to visit in their own right. Most graves here were post 1850. As time passes, so immediate relatives first age, then die, leaving no-one to maintain individual graves, let alone the estate as a whole.
Christian Church attendance has declined by two thirds since the 1960’s, those that do attend are predominantly over 65. Churches and graveyards are suffering from the support of far fewer, those that do support are becoming older, and the decline is likely to accelerate. Cremation now accounts for 72% of all “disposals”, plots are expensive and an “earner” for the Church or Council. So burial is going out of fashion, resulting in less custodial interest, but still offer an income for very little expenditure for the cemetery owner. I do not blame Bethel Church alone for the scandalous state of their cemetery, I do blame them for not succeeding in finding a solution to this disgrace to their Church, the city, Wales and humanity generally.
Whatever one’s personal religious beliefs, there is a bigger picture here. How we treat the sick, the poor and the dead defines any society. Once we fail to treat the dead with respect, so our respect for the living is diminished. I was horrified when talking to some of my relatives subsequently that the state of Bethel cemetery is repeated in several locations elsewhere in the City and beyond. How has it come to this?
As I wandered about dismayed at what I saw I did glimpse something which threw the public indifference to this place into poignant juxtaposition. It was the grave of Private James Owen , one of the heroes of Rorke’s Drift, one amongst 150 British soldiers who successfully defended a supply depot and hospital in South Africa against thousands of Zulu warriors popularised in the c 1964 film “ Zulu”. A new gravestone had been erected and rededicated. But this is no place for heroes.
It strikes me that a debate about cemeteries in the 21st century is long overdue. There appears to be a downward spiral of indifference, neglect and more indifference with little to attract anyone to them apart from those visiting specific burial plots. Frankly, there is a strong case for re-landscaping significant tracts of this cemetery and reinterring remains of those who have no relatives who visit.
I accept the problem relating to bought, but unused as yet, plots, and recent graves which are still vital places of pilgrimage and comfort for the living . However what struck me was how expensive so many of the memorials clearly were, and how derelict the surrounds were. Is this what living relatives want ? This lack of design, planning and ambition means that the potential health and environmental benefits of cemeteries are not being realised. Meanwhile, cemeteries will deteriorate further. I do not expect Bethel cemetery in Sketty to be like Arlington cemetery, USA. I do expect minimum standards of decency which are woefully absent at present.