Downloading the Dead

City of London Cemetery gives a different perspective to the Future Cemetery.

Stop 2 in London was to visit the ever-cheerful Cemetery Superintendent Gary Burke at the City of London Cemetery and Cremetorium, in Aldersbrook, London.

Opened in 1855 and 200 acres in size, the site dwarves Arnos Vale's 45 acres and is approaching the 1 million-mark for the number of people buried and cremated there. There are some direct points of comparison though. It was set up as a response to the overcrowded inner-city burial ground, spans the period of the high Victorian "Cult of Death" and boasts impressive funerary monuments, including re-burial of entire churchyards from the city of London that have been exhumed over the years to make way for city development. (Just like Bristol Harbourside's St Augustine's Reach where the Watershed now stands, where in the 1870s St Augustine the Less' churchyard was cleared and the remains of hundreds of individuals from the 18th century were deposited in Arnos Vale. The Watershed team were astonished to discover their offices sit on the old graveyard!)

City of London Cem & Crem remains a working cemetery today, with up to 1000 burials and 3000 cremations per year - averaging about 8 a day! It also works with local schools and the Centre for Death and Society in University of Bath. Where it differs from Arnos Vale though, is in its approach to Public Engagement.

"Dark tourists? What are they?" I was asked. "Oh, weird visitors" came the response after I explained - making this the perfect place to test the range of responses we might get from cemeteries to the Future Cemetery project. With such a high frequency of funeral services - the cemetery turnover is £4 million a year - heritage visitors are definitely not the main audience here and public engagement with the site as a tourist destination is not fully exploited. It is only thanks to Gary giving up his free time on one Sunday per month that the cemetery can offer public guided tours at all. When Gary attempted to set up some evening tours a few years ago, the cemetery board were deeply concerned about causing offence to families and the idea stalled.

A useful reminder that not every historic cemetery considers themselves a heritage site, and it will be interesting to find out more from the few that do whether they are willing to take a risk by trying out new forms of interpretation.

The Future Cemetery team have also been finding lots of interesting Cemetery apps, websites and experiences out there. See links below:

for Pere Lachaise's 360 degree camera and mapping at http://www.pere-lachaise.com

the virtual cemetery:   http://www.ubergizmo.com/2011/09/i-tomb-i-memorial/

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