As a stone sculptor and designer of contemporary memorials, I am always drawn to churchyards and cemeteries to look at old headstones and graves. These traditional burial grounds encompass the rich social and economic history of a village, town or city and often exhibit the finest artisan skills of their day.
I recently visited Arnos Vale Cemetery, located in a vast wooded hillside near the centre of Bristol. It’s packed with huge ornate Victorian mausoleums, graves and sculptures – an historical document in stone, if you will, recording the lives of the great and good from yesteryear. Arnos Vale truly is a fascinating place to explore and observe the grand public gestures people made about themselves or their family members after death. Generation upon generation were laid to rest there in large plots endorsing an unspoken continuum. Most had always lived in Bristol, held a significant social standing within the community and felt the need to express their worth – both as part of a larger family and as Bristolians.
I have come to realise that people today are looking for very different ways to commemorate life, compared with these huge Victorian edifices. Intimate objects of mourning from the 19th century – such as jewellery, decorative objects or keepsakes made from human hair and jet – have more relevance to the modern mindset. These were private and individual mementos – permanent and precious physical reminders of a person – and something which could be passed down through a family.
Many of us now lead a more transitory lifestyle. Members of the same family may live in different parts of the country or in far flung parts of the world. A return to the idea of a smaller and more personal memorial is becoming much more appropriate as society’s views on death shift and change. We now think about choosing memorials that can be moved with us or shared between a family.
In the 20th century, the variety and choice of memorials shrank. The public seemed to develop a more hands-off approach. We had less involvement in the burial or cremation process, accepting purely what was on offer from the local funeral directors.
After finding it almost impossible to commission an individually designed and hand cut headstone, Harriet Frazer MBE founded the Memorials by Artists Trust in 1988. The trust aimed to promote the skills of the best letter cutters and carvers in the country, while encouraging the public to choose beautifully made headstones instead of the mass produced versions commonly available.
Since its inception more than 20 years ago; the Memorials by Artists Trust has prompted a quiet revolution, encouraging people to consider a broader range of options for commemorating life. Today people can quickly and easily research online to find a funeral-type, celebrant, casket design, style of service or choice of final resting place that truly reflects the life of a person. The internet has opened a new world of opportunity for people to source information and ideas for more personal, individual and human commemorations. The choices available are continuing to grow, from the tastefully imaginative, to the openly wacky.
For people preferring the choice of a humanist funeral, green burial or cremation, the option of a headstone is no longer relevant. In my experience the public are increasingly seeking fitting alternative memorials. The traditional cemetery and headstone will always, of course, have its place, but we live in rapidly changing times and people’s needs and expectations are certainly broadening. There is an undeniably growing movement towards finding refreshing, new and uplifting ways to celebrate a life. I genuinely believe memorials will continue to develop in the future – increasingly capturing the essence of an individual for others to quietly reflect upon at home, in the garden and in the cemetery.
By Kate Semple