I am currently in Malvern, England for the HES/ANZHES History of Education Conference. This morning, before the conference began, I had the opportunity of exploring the town. It is a beautiful place imbued with historical significance. I discovered The Unicorn, a pub frequented by CS Lewis and Tolkien. I found beautiful old buildings and even had the opportunity to visit a handmade market at the local church.
What struck me the most, however, is the cemetery at the Great Malvern Priory. This is a beautiful small lawn cemetery. No one has been buried there for many years. The fascinating thing about it was that it was very much alive. I met and spoke to a woman who visits the cemetery on a regular basis to feed the birds and squirrels. I spoke to the former Vicar, who pointed me to some of the most historically significant gravestones – including that of Charles Darwin’s daughter – and discussed the way in which people still use the site. It is a space in which people walk, relax, and sit and think. In many ways, the use of this site mirrors the way cemeteries were used by the Victorians, whose custom of picnicking amongst the dead appears strange to modern eyes.
Perhaps my surprise is due to my relatively limited experience of the world. I live in Queensland, Australia, near a beautiful lawn cemetery in which many people of significance to my city’s history are buried. The only people I see visit it are relatives of the dead. The way residents of Malvern interact with their forefathers in the graveyard of the Great Malvern Priory seems, to me, somehow more respectful. Death is, in some ways, not the end of sociality. People buried here are visited. Their names, still visible on their headstones after many years, are remembered in a very real way, one connected to their former embodiment and to the way in which their loved ones chose to memorialise them.