Changing Burial Practices

Dr Julie Rugg, University of York


I’m sure that local authority record offices are often the sites of many small epiphanies: the historian leans into the microform reader with a sudden spark of genuine surprise, and then looks around to see if anyone else has noticed. One epiphany moment for me happened in Northallerton Record Office, looking at a burial register for a St Mary’s Church, Scawton. The information I was reading was not that surprising really, and if I had thought for a couple of minutes I would have guessed anyway. But what the burial register told me was that in 1829, St Mary’s churchyard had no burials at all.

At this point, I had been researching burial practices for about twenty years, but principally focussing on urban cemetery development. That research placed the cemetery at the heart of mass urbanisation, at a time when existing churchyards were choked to gory horror with burial after burial in a small acre that was already crammed with the dead of past decades. This was the context for the invention of ordered burial space, managed by experts, with practices based on the most up-to-date scientific methods. Theories of Foucauldian governmentality were a shoo-in: each body was ordered in its tidy little space, and death was sequestered and contained in cemeteries on the outskirts of towns. It’s easy then to build vast narratives in which the physical marginality of the dead somehow echoes a societal imperative to marginalise and ultimately ignore signs of mortality.

Moving out of the vast urban squalor of Victorian England and into the small and scattered rural settlements of North Yorkshire, this image did not pertain. The number of deaths was really too small to provoke a change in practice. It was possible to continue to use the churchyard. In fact, the churchyard at Scawton is very probably still being used today, and still has no more than one or two burials a year.

St Mary’s Church, Scawton. Photograph taken in May 2016 by Matthew Modget (Creative Commons 4.0)

This fact made me wonder about the impact of scale on burial customs, and on change in funerary practice more generally. As a historian and a policy maker looking at contemporary funerary issues, I know that the big changes in the last two centuries have been  – broadly stated – from churchyard to cemetery, from cemetery to crematorium, and the more recent development of woodland burial. These changes are often associated with substantive themes, principally secularity and some vaguely diffuse modernism or postmodernism. But the research in the record office indicated that the rather more pragmatic understanding of scale of operation might be a more fruitful approach to consideration of change, and more specifically why scaling upwards might provoke that change.

There is substantial historical documentation to assist in that exploration. I was in the North Yorkshire Record Office because a peculiarity of British law means that there is no statutory requirement for burial space to be provided. Laws are permissive, and as a consequence every parish in the nineteenth century made its own decisions about how burial space should be provided. Parish vestry records often record where decisions are made about whether to extend the churchyard or establish a burial board. If the parish decided to establish a burial board, then the statutory framework defined complex and extensive administrative and technical processes which can leave a satisfying and rich documentary trail. At the same time, the decisions being made were discussed in the local newspaper, in national newspapers, and in parliament. Burial was a hugely contentious issue, which brought the Church of England to the very edge of disestablishment.

Cremation is similarly well documented. There is a substantial cremation archive at the University of Durham. But visiting the archive is almost unnecessary. The Cremation Society of Great Britain operated a modern campaign of propaganda which meant regular stories in national and local press.  More recent change in funerary practice is also remarkably well documented. Geoffrey Gorer’s 1956 study of bereavement and ritual was perhaps the first modern empirical study of grief, bereavement and ritual which now constitutes an essential primary text describing funerary practices, and attitudes towards those practices, in the post-World War II period. For the historian, the substantial and sudden explosion in death scholarship, which has flourished since the 1980s has produced a wealth of monographs based on empirical research, grey reports and practice guidance notes.

It was possible to draw on all this data to consider the factors explaining why a change in scale had an impact on the ways in which we dispose of the dead. The data indicated that three particular issues were of importance. First, there was a desire to protect the individuated dead body, and in particular protect the body from undifferentiated, mass interment. Wherever a process becomes ‘industrial’, there is a search for an alternative. Cremation, now often castigated for its conveyor-belt processing of one funeral after another, was originally a bespoke operation, targeting a generation of ‘early adaptors’, and where crematoria were often undertaking no more than one or two cremations a week.

Second, the bereaved will always seek to secure comfort from the means of laying the dead to rest. Burial in an overcrowded and noxious churchyard in the 1840s was actively harrowing, and cemetery literature underlined the serenely beautiful, garden-like nature of new joint stock cemeteries which were established in number from the 1820s.

Third, the choices that are offered and purchased comprise a market. Active consumerism drives change in funerary practice, as the bereaved seek to purchase options that will protect the dead and afford a degree of comfort. Woodland burial is a concept that has its foundation in a genuine desire to meet ecological concerns in contemporary funerary practice, but over time is evolving into a bespoke, ‘artisanal’ lifestyle/deathstyle offering which will no doubt lose its appeal once it becomes a branded product, operating at scale.

Moving backwards and forwards in time, there is rather more similarity than difference in the ways in which we have dealt with our dead.


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About the author: Dr Julie Rugg is Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Housing Policy and a member of the Cemetery Research Group at the University of York. She is the author of Churchyard and Cemetery: Tradition and Modernity in Rural North Yorkshire (Manchester University Press, 2013) as well as numerous reports, books and articles on housing and burial history and policy, including ‘Consolation, Individuation and Consumption: Towards A Theory of Cyclicality in English Funerary Practice’, Cultural & Social History, vol. 15, no. 1 (2018), pp. 61-78.

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