Burial Grounds

by Mike Kiernan



Sadly the loss of burial grounds is a phenomena that has been a regular occurrence in Cornwall for well over a thousand years. Many of the ancient parishes have historic records indicating burial grounds whose locations are now lost. Sometimes, as happened in St Day, archaeological evidence indicates their approximate location. It should also be remembered that a burial plot is a permanent thing is a fairly recent (Victorian) idea. Churchyards were used over and over again with the churchyard  cleared for re-use. Sometimes the bones were deposited in charnel houses and one such "House of the Dead" survives in Bodmin churchyard, sans bones ! God's little acre often contains a small proportion of headstones compared with the many thousands  of persons that must have been buried there over the centuries. This often results in the churchyard being several feet higher than the surrounding roads and the church's foundation level.

Those of you who have visit Brittany will be familiar with the fantastic church 'Closes 'and their 'Houses of the Dead'. On the European continent it is common to re-use burial plots every fifty years or so. This results in such rather odd tourist attractions as the catacombs in Paris where millions of bones  are stored and visitors come every day to see them. 

The memorials in the old church at St Day were buried under four hundred tons of rubble and recovered, some broken, when I acted as site archaeologist during conservation work. They are now available for viewing and have been well recorded and photographed. Today it is a rather complex business to build on burial grounds; exhumation and re-internment is the normal order of the day. This is a  very expensive business and it happens in our cities quite regularly. Road widening at Illogan resulted in the disturbance of some graves and their re-burial. If the area is merely converted to a 'Garden of Rest' for easier maintenance and more local use the grounds are just flattened and a retreat created with planting and seats. That happened in St Agnes in the 1950's and the headstones were buried. A few years ago I was commissioned to dig them up, record them and re-bury them again as part of the conservation considerations  what to do with the site. At least a record now exists. 

It is not just burial headstones that are lost. Many chapels are closed and often their internal memorials 'disappear'. At Mithian a chapel was closed but a local farmer managed to rescue the first world war memorial. It resided in his barn for many years before finding a home in the small Women's Institute.   I did manage to examine the inside of Hendra Wesleyan Chapel before conversion began. The only point of interest was the magnificent ceiling rose so typical of Methodist chapels. There was one important memorial to Charles Collins of Johannesburg, South Africa and a good organ. Both are now located in Stithians Church. I have  photographed and recorded all the above. 

Recording these memorials  often has amusing results such as when memorials move around. I have a photo of an important memorial in St Buryan churchyard at the west end of the church and another of it at the east end. Others are desperately unhappy losses, particularly when the destruction is caused by "accidental vandalism". I believe the proposed car park in Launceston may be so termed. Of course there will be inevitable losses due to weathering and neglect. Graveyards are special places, more so if you are a descendent of the deceased and even if sympathetically maintained this costs. One aspect that constantly amazes me is that while many agree that this loss of our heritage is to be deplored, very few are prepared to help maintain even their own relative's burial plot, or aid in restoration by providing cash or labour.

 "Closed" churchyards  are maintained by the local authorities, the buildings and contents by the church authorities but they only have limited funds from tax payers or church members alike. Recently I was on the Roseland Peninsula and took details of two very important sixteenth century slates  that rest in the graveyard of  a church shortly to be closed unless a "miracle" happens. The  congregation of less than a dozen  elderly people can no longer maintain the church  from among their number and no grants are available for this purpose. This situation is being  repeated increasingly in Cornwall as the local, elderly, church going population dies off.

WHITBURNJames.jpg (24086 bytes)

A Neville Northey Burnard carving in Gwennap Church


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Revised: February 26, 2012 .