Volunteers sought to adopt a grave
No one brings them flowers. No one stops to pay their respects. No one stoops down to tear out the encroaching weeds. These are the graves of the forgotten, their plots long uncared for, any memories of them lost to eternity.
James Norris, founder of MyWishes (formerly DeadSocial), a tool that keeps social networking accounts active after their owner's death, has teamed up with one of Britain's oldest and most distinguished garden cemeteries, Brompton Cemetery in west London, to help restore a sense of dignity to unloved graves.
Adopt a Grave is a people-funded idea which aims to honour the dead while highlighting the beauty of cemeteries. James, together with Robert Stephenson of the Friends of Brompton Cemetery, hopes the scheme will both improve the appearance of cemeteries and increase visitor numbers. They told Dying Matters more about it.
How many graves are available for adoption?
James: We have made 17 historic graves in Brompton Cemetery available to adopt for three months from the 1 February 2015. All 17 graves are in a row and we hope that a community will be forged by participants who will feel a kind of ownership of the grave that they tend.
Where did the idea came from?
James: I recently spoke at London Month of the Dead, which was held in Brompton Cemetery and Kensal Green Cemetery. During this time I met Robert Stephenson, who helps to run the ‘Friends of Brompton Cemetery’. Soon after I thought that it would be nice to ‘give permission’ to the general public to tend an historic grave.
Many people, like me, live in London and do not have a garden, grow crops or tend to a green space. By adopting a grave a symbiotic relationship between the objectives of a cemetery and those of participants can be forged.
Why Brompton Cemetery?
James: Brompton Cemetery has over 200,000 people buried in its grounds. Due to its size, the amount of funding they receive and the age of the headstones, some sections are overgrown. This makes it a picture perfect cemetery for Adopt a Grave to be piloted in. The idea was largely inspired by Brompton Cemetery and therefore it is fitting that the initiative takes place there. If it is a success we may consider helping other cemeteries roll out the initiative themselves.
How old are the graves available?
Robert: Most of the graves to be looked after in this scheme date from between 1840-1900. We haven’t researched the specific graves available as we hope that these tasks might be carried out and the stories told by the participants.
Did you have to get any living relatives’ permission?
Robert: Permission is not needed to tend the old graves in the cemetery. If something were to be changed to the monument itself (for example, fixing a crack) permission would need to be obtained.
Have you had much interest so far?
James: We announced the initiative at the beginning of January and of the 17 graves available, five have been reserved already. If you would like to adopt any of the graves shown in the video above, please email us with the number of your preferred grave.
With many modern graves untended, did you consider using them instead and, if so, were there were potential issues with living relatives?
Robert: The cemetery staff and relatives are largely focused on looking after modern graves and they are usually in fairly good condition. The older graves get regular but much less attention, although they are sometimes tended by the Friends of Brompton Cemetery volunteers.
James: We also wanted to make historic, untended graves available for the ‘Adopt a Grave’ initiative. This is due to the condition of the older graves and romantic nature around tending a grave that is over 100 years old. This also helps to remove any potential issues that may occur with living relatives soon after someone’s death.
Aren't you doing a job the council should be doing?
Robert: Brompton Cemetery is looked after by the Royal Parks rather than the local Council. They have a limited budget and the involvement of the local community is becoming more important now and more so in the future.
Why are so many graves neglected?
James: I've read that graves are normally only tended regularly for 15 years. Most of the monuments in Brompton Cemetery are over 100 years old and so lost in time.
Robert: At the moment there are large areas of bracken in the cemetery which makes the place look unkempt. These areas have been sprayed and cannot be cut until the chemical has had a chance to do its work. When this time is over the old graves can be revealed with help from volunteers.
How does this scheme fit in with MyWishes’s overall vision?
James: MyWishes’s goal is to get us thinking about and preparing for death. We use creativity to raise awareness of death and often utilise technology to do so. Our previous campaigns range our social media digital legacy tool to Dying Matters pop-up shops and streaming a pantomime at Christmas to hospices across the UK. We work with partners whenever we can to add value to their objectives as well as our own. If your hospice, charity or organisation would like to collaborate in some way, shape or form in 2015, feel free to get in touch.
DeadSocial ran two successful, week-long pop-up shops for Dying Matters Awareness Week. Each shop hosted a number of events run by charities and local organisations. Read James' advice: 'Hosting a Dying Matters event (32 things to consider)'.