Grave maintenance gives one plenty of time to reflect upon the history of the cemetery you are working in, after all you are surrounded by the history of the town and its people. However it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the history of these people began just 100 – 150 years earlier because even the best kept graveyards rarely have plots older than that. In fact, although it maybe stating the obvious, the history of their ancestors started many thousands of years earlier and an enormous amount of information about any society can be gleaned from how they buried their dead.
Lots of the oldest and best maintained historical sites in the world are associated with death, one only has to think of the Pyramids as a perfect example. A more modern example of a burial place that reflects a society is Westminster Abbey in London where all the Kings of England going back hundreds of years are laid to rest. The information we learned from the opening of tombs belonging to the earliest kings of Egypt was priceless and exhibitions of the artefacts taken for the tomb of Tutankhamen still draw tens of thousands of people wherever they go.
It was the Greeks who gave us the word cemetery with it’s derivation in their word for “sleeping place” and whilst it would be easy to imagine large graveyards going back many hundreds of years they were in fact only introduced into general society around the 1600’s. Prior to that people were buried almost anywhere because the society framework of local administrators was almost non existent. Mass graves which were probably created after battles or even more likely through disease have been found in numerous places throughout the UK.
Grave care was not something that people even thought about 200-300 years ago. Apart from the burial places of very important people such as Kings or local warriors little or no thought was given to having a single place where the members of a local settlement or town could be buried together. Whereas now we have large numbers of graveyards and even groups of people who meet on a regular basis to study the history of their local cemetery, one such group are The Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery who even give 2 hour guided tours of the entire site.
Grave tending services back in the early days of graveyards was in the main carried out by members of the local church as the cemeteries were almost always built around such buildings. Any visit to an old church especially in rural areas will give forth all the history of that place along with the characters that shaped its community. Grave maintenance in such places is a treasure trove for anyone interested in history with the rich and famous of the society in the most prominent positions alongside the church buildings. The lower classes of labourers and manual workers plots can usually be found on the outskirts of the graveyard with none of the wonderful memorial headstones of their rich neighbours.