Gardens of the dead: cemeteries as spaces for nature

The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies.Percy Bysshe Shelley, Preface to Adonais (1891)

Percy Shelley’s description of the Protestant Cemetery in Rome perfectly illustrates how the cemetery, often negatively associated with death and decay, can in fact be a place where nature flourishes.

In this blog post, we highlight some of the great work being done to promote and conserve biodiversity in cemeteries, and the wider benefits of this.

Cemeteries as ‘green oases’

The importance of cemeteries as urban green spaces is often overlooked.  Relatively untouched by surrounding urban development, cemeteries often act as green oases, providing a range of important natural habitats for many different – and often rare – plant life and animals.

Indeed, as the 2000-01 Select Committee Report on Cemeteries observes:

Cemeteries support a wide range of habitats, including relict grasslands, heath, ancient and secondary woodland, scrub, hedges, ponds and flushes, as well as more artificial features such as high maintenance lawns, stands of trees, ornamental flower beds, and shrubberies. In addition, buildings, monuments, tombs and headstones, made from a variety of rocks, can provide support for lichens, mosses and ferns, as well as providing geological interest. A large number of rare species of trees, plants, fungi, invertebrates, reptiles, birds and mammals are found in cemeteries. Cemeteries are often designated as local Wildlife Sites, and sometimes as Nature Reserves.

Green space such as that provided by cemeteries, churchyards and other burial sites is important for a number of reasons.

From an environmental perspective, green space can help to address the negative effects of climate change, including the catastrophic decline in the number of insects. And from a human perspective, research has consistently shown the health and wellbeing benefits of access to green space.

Thus, cemeteries have an important role to play in both supporting the environment and promoting the health and wellbeing of local people.

Case study: Glasgow Necropolis

The Glasgow Necropolis is an impressive example of a Victorian garden cemetery, designed to be both inspiring and aesthetically pleasing.

Today, it is the second largest greenspace in the centre of Glasgow and provides a diverse range of habitats for wildlife, including sandy slopes, ivy-covered rock, wooded areas and unmown areas of grass and wildflowers.

The Friends of Glasgow Necropolis is a charity staffed entirely by volunteers dedicated to the conservation of the cemetery.

As well important monument conservation and restoration projects, and hosting walking tours to engage and educate the public, they also work to support the cemetery’s role as a space for nature.  One key aspect of this is recording and monitoring the flora and fauna within the cemetery.

Recent surveys have found that the Necropolis supports over 400 species of animals – including a variety of species of birds, bees, butterflies, insects and spiders, as well as deer, foxes, squirrels and rabbits, and a variety of other small mammals. Some of these species are particularly rare, including the aptly-named hoverfly, Eumerus funeralis.

There is also a wide diversity of plant life.  In total, 180 species of flowering plants and trees have been recorded in the Necropolis, and there are also at least 15 species of lichens – including one rare species (Lecania cyrtella).

Other key projects have sought to actively enhance the biodiversity of the cemetery – such as the creation of a wildflower meadow, planted with the help of local school children, and the creation of the ‘Green Man’ – a 3D grass head sculpture, in collaboration with the Glasgow School of Art, Glasgow City Council, Dennistoun Community Council, Dennistoun Conservation Society and Foundation Scotland.

There are also plans underway to create a ‘tree map’ for the Necropolis – a visual representation of the different tree species that exist within the cemetery grounds.

Engaging local communities

Across the UK there are a number of examples of other grassroots projects working to promote, conserve and engage local communities in cemeteries’ rich natural heritage.

Some notable examples include:

There have also larger-scale projects and campaigns to promote the role of cemeteries as havens for wildlife.

Caring for God’s Acre is a charity working to “support groups and individuals to investigate, care for, and enjoy burial grounds”.

For a week in June each year, they run a national ‘Love your Burial Ground’ campaign, which encourages people to connect with and celebrate their local churchyards, cemeteries and burial grounds through a variety of local events.

They are also responsible for running the ‘Beautiful Burial Grounds Project’ – a £600,000 Heritage Lottery Fund project that aims to “inspire, engage and support interest groups, communities and individuals to learn about, research and survey the natural, built and social heritage of their local burial grounds”.

The project includes collecting, collating and disseminating data on the importance of burial grounds for biodiversity, providing training events on recording biodiversity and disseminating a variety of resources such as short films, toolkits and pop ups to encourage communities to value their burial grounds as refuges for wildlife.

The Green Flag Award scheme has also been involved in the promotion of cemeteries as spaces for nature.  The scheme “recognises and rewards well managed parks and green spaces” and at present, over 80 cemeteries have received this award, including Tipton Cemetery in Sandwell, and the new Dumbarton Cemetery – the first cemetery in Scotland to be awarded a Green Flag.

Challenges to address

There are of course a number of challenges to be addressed if the full potential of cemeteries as green spaces are to be realised.

Firstly, there is a lack of data on the plant and animal species that exist within cemeteries.  This lack of ecological awareness can mean that sometimes burial ground management and maintenance can be well-intentioned, but inappropriate or damaging.  Thus, projects to record species – such as those conducted by the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis and other cemeteries’ friends groups – are incredibly important.

There is also a need to find an appropriate balance between allowing nature to flourish and ensuring that the cemetery remains accessible.  For example, there have been complaints that long grass around headstones can make it difficult for some people to visit family graves.  The Select Committee Report on Cemeteries notes that: “conservation must not be confused with neglect. A neglected cemetery does not become a haven for flora and fauna.”

Health and safety is another key consideration.  Unstable memorials can cause serious – and sometimes fatal – injuries.  Any project operating within cemeteries needs to be aware of this risk, particularly if it involves children or young people.  The Scottish Government recently published guidance for local authorities on inspecting and making safe memorials and headstones.

Other potential barriers to the use of cemeteries as green spaces include the lack of onsite facilities, such as toilets and bins, physical constraints, such as steep stairs, lack of vehicle access/wheelchair access, and concerns about visitor safety and anti-social behaviour.  These issues, however, are not insurmountable – for example, the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis have recognised these accessibility concerns and raised funds from grant applications to resurface many of the paths on the lower levels of the cemetery to make it easier for people with mobility problems to get around.

‘Living places’ that inspire

It is worth remembering too that cemeteries were set up not just to bury the dead but to stir the Muses among the living.” Fiona Green, a landscape historian, quotes John Strang‘s Necropolis Glasguensis (1831)

Cemeteries are not just for the dead.  They are in many ways ‘living places’ – havens for a range of plant and animal species in the midst of urban housing and development.  They also have an important role to play in the wider community, providing opportunities for local people to connect with and be inspired by nature.

And hopefully, after reading about the many ways in which people across the country are getting involved with nature at their own local burial grounds, you may be similarly inspired.


If you’ve enjoyed this blog, take a look at some more posts on the subject of biodiversity:

Why the future of public transport has to be green

Image by flickr user Justin Pickard via Creative Commons

Image by flickr user Justin Pickard via Creative Commons

By Morwen Johnson

Ending our use of oil, coal and natural gas by the end of the century? It seems an impossible task, but this week’s G7 Summit closed with the announcement that the leaders of 7 leading industrial nations had agreed to phase out the use of fossil fuels. As one of the G7, the UK is part of this long-term commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It is also legally-bound, via The Climate Change Act (2008), to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

These national and international targets will only be met however if we all make practical changes to our patterns of energy consumption. Organisations like the Energy Saving Trust Foundation and NESTA have pointed out that providing new technologies is not enough to increase public engagement with alternative energy. Success is dependent on getting real people to use these technologies in everyday situations.

Use of renewable energy in public transport

Earlier this week I attended an event on the use of renewable energy in public transport. Not being a transport specialist, but interested from the point of view of community development and social exclusion, it was a useful introduction to some of the innovative work that is underway in Europe.

Organised to present the results of the REPUTE (Renewable Energy in Public Transport Enterprise) project, the event explored the challenges of ensuring accessible public transport in rural areas. People in rural areas typically travel 50% further than people living in urban areas. Travel which is essential to daily life such as going to school or work, going shopping or getting to doctors and hospitals all requires longer journeys, mostly by car or bus. A lack of integration between different modes of transport also makes travel by car more convenient in rural areas.

Pilot projects showcased at the event included personal travel planning in Fort William; solar-powered real-time bus information signs in the Highlands and Islands region; and electric vehicle rental in rural towns in Portugal.

A new guide written by Oxford Brookes University was also launched at the event and includes lots of examples of community-based transport and energy schemes.

Signs of progress

I picked up on a few heartening signs of a shift in attitudes. Many local authorities are publicly supporting alternative energy use in their fleets and providing charging points. A recent survey showed that Scottish councils in particular are leading the way in the UK in the adoption of electric vehicles, with Dundee placed in the number 1 spot and South Lanarkshire, Glasgow and Fife also in the top 5.

  • Aberdeen now has the largest fleet of hydrogen fuel buses of any authority in Europe.
  • 2 of Edinburgh’s bus routes have switched completely to low carbon hybrid vehicles.
  • There are more electric vehicles in Scottish car clubs than the total in car clubs in the rest of the UK.
  • Elsewhere in Europe, Oslo’s initiative to open up bus lanes to electric vehicles has become a victim of its own success with the announcement in May that the law is being changed. A fifth of new cars bought in Norway in the last 3 years have been electric.

A key aspect of pilot schemes is to introduce the public to new energy solutions in a way that is engaging. For example, visitors to the Brecon Beacons National Park can hire electric cars to travel around the area, turning eco travel into a fun activity in itself. A new ‘poo bus’ which runs in Bristol and is fuelled by bio-waste, is a witty way to spark debate about alternative fuel sources. And in Oxford, the city is transforming into a Living Lab for integrated transport experimentation.

Public transport as eco-transport

The need for a transport system which is cleaner and less-energy dependent is clear – the transport sector is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.

However investing in innovative renewable energy technologies at a time of budget constraints, requires government and local authorities to show leadership and vision. More importantly, there won’t be a step change in behaviour and attitudes without imaginative approaches to community engagement. Locally-led projects such as those highlighted by REPUTE’s guide are a great way to do this.


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