Exploring Brookwood Cemetery

A couple of weeks ago, we had an unexpected visit to the great cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey. Originally, designed as an overspill cemetery for the corpses piling up in Victorian London, it is perhaps best known for its ‘Necropolis Railway’ that ran straight from London Waterloo to the cemetery itself. What I found most fascinating though was not the earlier phases of the cemetery, but the more recent areas, which contained burial zones dedicated to a complex mix of different religions and ethnicities. As I’ve done a lot of work on early medieval burial, in which the role of ethnicities and religious beliefs are so much at the front of people’s thoughts, it was a useful exercise to see how these aspects of identity were played out in a more contemporary setting.

The first area we explored was the Catholic zone – itself a reminder that Christianity comes in more than one flavour and that certain communities felt the need to spatially differentiate themselves from others (although there was no formal boundary between this area and the burial zones of other traditions). Strikingly, although whilst the individuals within this area were all buried within the same faith tradition, there were other identities being signalled in their burial, particularly ethnicity. There is clearly a significant Italian diaspora community in this part of Surrey – and they were marking themselves out in death. They were doing in this in a number of different ways. First, there was a clear physical clustering of graves with Italian names in a certain part of the Catholic zone. In some cases, particularly in the slightly older burials, Italian was used in the epitaphs, but often most of the text was in English , although often the place of birth was often indicated down to the level of the town or village in which the person had been born in. Another feature, distinctive to these was the use of photographs of the deceased. Such photographs are not a particularly British tradition (although it is starting to become more common), so the consistent use of photographs in this area certainly marked out the occupants as ‘not British’ even if not specifically Italian.

It is tempting to see the declining use of Italian on the graves as an indicator of some level of assimilation by the Italian community. However, in other aspects of the burial tradition of this community there seemed to be in more recent years a very pronounced revival of a very distinctively Italian burial tradition – the construction and use of columbaria. Columbaria are upstanding constructions containing multiple compartments for individual cinerary remains. Anyone who has travelled abroad will have seen these used widely in the Mediterranean, particularly in Italy, often rather resembling banks of marble filing cabinets. Often groups of compartments are dedicated to the use of a specific family. Their use is certainly alien to the English tradition. However, here at Brookwood, columbaria only seem to be start being constructed in the 21st century, where they only seemed to be used by the Italian community. In this sense, the Italian population are seemingly becoming more rather than less Italian in death as time goes by.

It would be interesting to find out more about how this has come about. One possibility is that as direct links with their overseas origins ebbs away as older generations pass, the younger community feel a need to signal their loyalty to their roots in other ways even if only in death. There are though other issues at play here though I’m sure. I’d be interested to get a better understanding of two factors. Firstly, how far do changes in cemetery regulations at Brookwood influence what is acceptable and permissible? Most cemeteries have very tight regulations about the range and design of burial memorials that are acceptable. Brookwood is a private cemetery, run on a commercial basis, rather than a municipal cemetery or a Church of England graveyard; thus they need to be savvy to attract clients. I can see this resulting in a pressure to allow more experimentation and unorthodoxy in memorial types – it is possible that columbaria only became acceptable within the cemetery relatively recently and that before that, even though the desire was there, people were simply not allowed to build and use such unorthodox (in a British context) memorials. Another hypotheses that would warrant further consideration is the pragmatic issue of the availability of the necessary skills and technologies to construct columbaria. Presumably, traditional UK undertakers in the past only offered a defined and limited range of burial monuments, which did not include columbaria. Potentially, it took some time for there to be enough demand, and presumably access to plans and exempla for commercial undertaking concerns to be able to move beyond simple head and kerbstones to being able to construct more complex memorials.

Both of these explanations are just working hypotheses – it is quite possible that that one, neither or both may be relevant, as well as other alternatives. Pleasingly, as these are contemporary burial traditions rather than archaeological case studies, it should, in theory, be possible to drill down deeper into the choices being made here. As archaeologists we spend a lot of time thinking about agency and the active decisions being made by people to express identities- this is a useful reminder that no matter what people might desire, there are also often pragmatic limitations (procedural, economic and social) that limits what people are actually able to do in practice.

The second area we explored was the substantial Muslim area of the cemetery. This was a real experience, as whilst I’ve seen plenty of non-British cemeteries before, this was a tradition I was not really familiar with. Handily, we got talking with a local man from the Pakistani community was really interested in talking about his religions approaches to burial and was frank about how some decisions were made. I am indebted to him for this time and willingness to report.

However, more widely, the same patterns that could be seen within the Catholic area to differentiate individuals and communities could be seen at play in this area. Groups were particularly differentiating themselves in terms of national origin, which although ultimately subordinate to religious identify was clearly an important structuring principal. Again, language was used as a differentiating strategy – some used just Arabic script, others used English script, and some a combination of the two. The place of birth was also mentioned regularly. In some cases, such as amongst the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot communities, national flags also often appeared on graves.

As with the Italian Catholic burials, the role of family tombs seemed much more apparent than in traditional British cemeteries. This may be a reflection of the differing significance of family groups in burial traditions in their native countries, but I wonder how much being part of an immigrant community may amplify or emphasise the importance of the family as a structuring principal in death and in life.

Obviously, Islamic burials are meant to broadly conform with a number of obligations – although obviously I’m aware there is huge variation here. A common requirement though is that the body should be at right-angles to the direction of Mecca. Interestingly, there was a surprising variety in alignment- sometimes even within the same burial compound or enclosure. The gentleman we were speaking to also said that often the precise choice of alignment might be constrained by pragmatic issues- for example, they were sometimes offset slightly if correct alignment would mean that the grave would intersect with one of the curved cemetery paths or roads. In other cases, the correct alignment might also result in a grave impinging onto a neighbouring plot. We were told that in this case the cemetery management company would charge for both plots in such cases, so sometimes economics came into play to prevent the ideal alignment being used.

Within the grave, we were told that coffins weren’t used, but in theory a barrier was meant to be placed between the body and the fill of the grave – stone or wood- but again we were told that this was also sometimes not used for reasons of cost. Presumably, this kind of price cutting was particularly easy as it was not visible after the interment itself and would only be known about by a small number of people.

Overall, it was a really thought-provoking visit – a distinct change from the many UK cemeteries and graveyards I’ve visited before. As I noted above archaeologist tend to be very interested in agency and choice in the mortuary process – particularly in the construction of ‘identities’ (whatever we might mean by that). The Brookwood experience has made me think a little more carefully about the constraints and limits that are also in place within any society. When looking at early medieval burials sometimes we tend to think about religious identities replacing ethnic and other identities- Brookwood was a reminder of how intermeshed and overlapping these identities can be in practice (and I didn’t even start to explore the issue of gender distinctions…).

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1 outlandish-knight.blogspot.co.uk

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  1. Thank you for this! I'd love to see Brookwood someday, but I've been worried about how huge it is and how easy it might be to get lost in. Your photos make it look very tempting.


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