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BOOK REVIEW - The Secret Cemetery

The Secret Cemetery by Doris Francis, Leonie Kellaher, and Georgina Neophytou fills a fairly obvious gap in the study of cemeteries. Most studies focus on the historic aspects of the cemetery – individual histories, genealogy, symbolism, and funerary architecture – but have virtually ignored the reason cemeteries exist in the first place.

Never before has such a sweeping and thorough study been done to examine how contemporary mourners actually use the cemetery. The authors have employed a social anthropology approach to their research, which has resulted in a fascinating modern look at cemeteries in Western society.

The authors first obtained permission from cemetery owners to conduct research. Their field study was quite extensive and lasted several years. They would interview willing participants for as long as they wished to talk, and were even invited to a few homes to continue the discussion. The authors also attempted to make contact via mailed questionnaires to those living in the vicinity of the cemeteries, to examine their attitudes toward the cemetery. Copies of research forms and questionnaires are included as appendices.

I was fascinated to learn how significant the garden is to English society. Often, many of the flowers and plants growing at a gravesite have been transplanted from the deceased’s own garden. Some plants were even raised as cuttings from family heirlooms, given to newlywed couples or new parents. Some study participants had grown plants for the cemetery garden from seeds themselves, which they viewed as a more personal and powerful tribute to the departed. Gardening is a national pastime in England that carries over to the cemetery.

While the focus of the book was to study the behavior of cemetery visitors, the authors also examine funerary rituals of some of England’s ethnic groups. There were extensive sections on the traditions of the Orthodox Jewish and Greek Cypriot communities, which have very specific funerary traditions that greatly influence the appearance of their respective cemeteries. For example, the Jewish faith does not encourage regular visits to the cemetery, which controls how the Jewish cemetery is used. From the photographs provided, the typical English Jewish cemetery is uniform, stark, and rarely personalized, creating a true “space apart” from the living.

The Greeks in the study, however, regularly visit to tend to extensive gardens. Although they frequent the cemetery, tradition and superstition dictate cemetery behavior. For example, in one interview the authors learned that Greeks typically keep a separate set of gardening tools exclusively for use in the cemetery garden that never enter the house. Another visitor recounted a tale of a fight that broke out at her home after a cemetery visit on a rainy, muddy day. Someone had not thoroughly wiped the cemetery dirt off their shoes, and had tracked it into the house. This was seen as an extremely bad omen, inviting death into the home of the living.

The Secret Cemetery also examines how people deal with the first year after a death, as well as how cemeteries are used long-term. The book includes research on how parents, children, and spouses view their own reasons for visiting the cemetery.

The authors went to great lengths to preserve the anonymity of the study participants, even going as far as to blur the names on the stones in photographs. Aside from brief biographical information, none of the quotations are identified.

At times, the book is difficult to read, as it is written in a kind of sociological doublespeak, which requires a bit of deciphering. While that may be a weakness of the book, the information conveyed was clearly worth reading. Since it is based in England, readers will find variant spellings and colloquialisms that may not be readily familiar. I would like to see a similar study conducted in the United States. I suspect some things would be similar to the findings in The Secret Cemetery, but others would be remarkably different.

For me, this book filled an important gap between modern day use of the cemetery and the historical view where I usually focus my research. It is important for all cemetery researchers to remember the reasons people build cemeteries, and how mourners have used them in the past – and today.


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