As first published in the Huffington Post United Kingdom:
I am quick to admit that the current economic times are challenging and that this is especially true for many of the ancient parish churches in the UK. I’ll also admit, right up front, to these two additional points: 1) While my Cornish roots go back at least 500 years, I live outside of the UK, and 2) As a genealogical historian, I most likely have a slightly skewed view of this issue. That said I am still going to voice my opinion here on a topic I have been reading about quite a bit lately: the push for minimal-care, return-to-nature, for churchyards, graveyards, and/or cemeteries. If you are not familiar with this idea, it is the concept of letting churchyards become wild areas rather than properly kept memorials. Whilst the concept of offering wildlife natural areas and saving money are both laudable, they are only laudable to a point and to me that point falls far short of the mark in the case of churchyards. It seems that the ‘good intentions’ portion always gets first billing, but the ‘saving money’ is actually the prime and true motivator. The animal sanctuary gets talk, but the ignoring of the sanctity of the churchyard itself gets short shrift.
I find three things morally and significantly wrong with this overall concept and they are as follows:
- Churchyards are sacred and cherished spaces, not wilderness areas.
- This concept is simply taking the easy way out.
- It is short-sighted in a variety of ways.
Let me address each of these in a bit of depth.
1) I will readily admit that while I have a strong faith, I am not ‘into’ organized religion. However, I do believe that churchyards are sacred places meant to be cherished, valued, cared for, and a focal point in all communities. I feel especially strong about those which are adjacent to, or near, a parish church. I also believe that our ancestors who rest in these hallowed grounds believed we would have the strength, love, and honor to properly care of their eternal resting places and not give them up for our ease and a few saved shillings.
2) Yes, saving money is important in these times, but this reminds me of the old adage of ‘cutting off one’s nose to spite their face’. That is what I believe is going on here. Sure, it is easy to say ‘we are helping animals’ and then simply delete, or vastly reduce, the expense column for churchyard maintenance. But I have to ask if this has been done only as the very last resort? Have fundraisers and discounts been fully explored? Have contracts for maintaining the churchyards been let out in a competitive manner? Times change and in more challenging economic times, often services can be had for less cost than in the past. What about volunteers? Is an unsightly, unkempt churchyard really and truly the impression we want to give our parishioners, our visitors, and our youngsters about our churches, our communities, and how we value your roots? Just the other day the Archbishop of York, Rev John Sentamu tweeted “Chruches should be more accessible – but we need to be more active in our local communities …” Giving churchyards the look of an abandon lot is neither inviting nor does it send a welcoming message at all. It is isolating!
3) Leaving a churchyard to certain, untimely, and early decay (and yes that is what will ultimately happen when given no care or far less care is provided) is incredibly short-sighted. Genealogical tourism is growing, as is genealogy and family history. As more genealogists and family historians spend years on their personal histories, the more of them will want to visit their home villages. The more people will want to come and be a part of their very own heritage – and to spend money! I recommend that you read the December 10, 2012 article in the Daily Mail entitled “Britain’s Religious Buildings Prove Huge Draw for Tourists”. Recently I found myself having the opportunity to visit some newly discovered cousins in Cornwall. Between my airfare, car rental, hotels, meals, a few pub visits, museums, and shopping I spent well over £5,000 pounds on my 10 day visit. Almost all of it very local spending! That does not count the extra Pounds I donated at every parish I visited or the contributions I have made since. It was personally devastating for me to have traveled so far and then to come upon an important family churchyard only to find it impenetrable due to overgrowth, brambles, and in some cases full-blown trees growing where they didn’t belong at all. Genealogy and family history hold significant potential for income producing opportunities for every single parish church. To paraphrase the gold-rush ‘49ers of California ‘there’s gold in them thar churchyards”! I do not know of a single genealogist who wouldn’t willingly assist a church that shows their need and houses the remains or played a significant role in the lives of their ancestors in order to help them be viable into the future. We don’t expect everything in our genealogy-based lives to be free, but if it is offered free, it will be accepted as so. If a parish were to do a bit of work on their records, documents, photographs of the church, churchyard, gravestones, and towns, maps, history pamphlets, indexes of surnames, etc. they could create and offer these for a fair price to those with an historic interest in that church, churchyard, and/or parish. Best yet, with electronic print-on-demand options available today, a parish needn’t even carry inventory. Plus with the advent of Facebook and other social networks, these items can be advertised worldwide for negligible cost and sold at a mark-up plus postage and handling fees. This income could go directly and fully to the upkeep of the churchyard and church.
I understand that none of this can happen without some work, but aren’t our history, our families, our ancestry, our homeland, our very roots worth a bit of work ….. rather than just an easy budget cut?
I would like to also acknowledge with special thanks the Cornwall Family History Society for their recent post on this subject. Also The Churches Tourism Association, the National Churches Trust, Archbishop of York, Rev. Sentamu, The Association for Graveyard Studies, and the history committee of the parish of Lanteglos by Camelford.