Cemeteries: A Site of Green Life?

Cemeteries: A site of green life? Annabel Bourne explores how to care for our cemeteries and how the deterioration of cemeteries poses a threat to both biodiversity and manmade structures.  

Highgate Cemetery in North England, famous for holding graves of the likes of Philosopher Karl Marx, singer George Michael, and writers George Eliot and Douglas Adams (just to name a few), has recently this year launched a competition for landscape designers and architects to come up with ‘sustainable’ reformation designs for the cemetery.  This conservatory action has been required due to the effects of climate change notably ‘eroding the cemetery’s gravel paths and overwhelming its historic drainage systems’. 

However, it is not just the man-made structures which are being threatened; the deterioration of the cemetery is also posing threat to biodiversity.  As such the trees, and thus the habitats they create for animals, as well as the architecture and monuments are expected to be looked after in Highgate’s conservation plans.  But why is the ground’s natural environment included in official concerns if the cemetery’s primary purpose is to provide a place to bury and remember the dead?  In this article the reasons will be shown as to why we should care about the natural state of our cemeteries, and why they prove such good hot-spots for wildlife.

Image credit: Duncan Harris 

Cemeteries are often exempt from the human intervention that other green areas are subjected too, such as the use of pesticides, agricultural farming, urbanisation etc. This is due to the fact that burial grounds are often regarded as sacred, the land is left alone, making them rare preservers of a natural habitat within a city.  Other green spaces in cities such as parks, gardens, arranged flower beds and ‘street-trees’ definitely help to increase natural habitat within the urban environments, but are perhaps under stricter human management than cemetery flora, and can be subjected to selective planting. This limits the biodiversity that’s crucial for supporting a flourishing ecosystem, cemeteries on the other hand, can contain a great array of rare or exotic plants and trees which have been imported from different countries and left to grow over the years.  

A UK Parliament report from 2000-2001 on cemeteries, although emphasising that burial of the dead and bereavement should be a cemetery’s priority, encourages cemetery owners to consult and work with wildlife / nature trusts if there is ample ‘biodiversity potential’.  The report also points out that the rock compositions of long-standing architecture, statues and gravestones in cemeteries provide a great habitat for the growth of mosses, ferns and lichens, further connecting the purpose of burial with the natural environment.

Image credit: Ethan Doyle White

Careful management of cemetery wildlife can help to maintain delicate balances of the food chains and ecosystems.  The presence of graves hundreds of years old which have remained untouched by urban development tells us that the surrounding habitat too has survived these years with very little human interference, allowing biodiversity to become rich and abundant and hopeful secure in future years to come as long as the graves remain.  The support of wildlife biodiversity in cemeteries can be so successful as to conceal unknown species, as proved by the 2019 discovery of the Agrilus 9895 beetle, a type of tree-dwelling jewel beetle, found in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery.  

The U.S Department of Agriculture particularly targeted Green-Wood for insect identification due to its ‘level III Accredited Aboretum status’, meaning it has a minimum of 500 tree and plant species, which no doubt is valuable for maintaining the biodiversity of animals too.  A meta-analysis review of the flora and fauna in cemeteries found that cemeteries provide habitats for 140 different species that are considered protected or endangered across the world.  These include bats, birds, lichens, rare medicinal herbs (in the Far and Middle East), rare mosses and mushrooms.  In North America cemeteries have been found to help preserve patches of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, for which conservation efforts have been in action since 1975. 

Image credit: Highgate Cemetery – East

An article by Philippa Davies raises the question of whether the ‘rewilding’ of cemeteries in East Devon is ethical or not: some may consider it a disrespect to the dead to let their graves gradually disappear under the growth of wilderness, whilst others may delight in the idea that their place of rest will be shrouded in new life.  Whichever position you take there is little doubt that ‘rewilding’ cemeteries is much to the advantage of wildlife.  

However, the benefits of a green cemetery have numerous benefits for city dwellers too.  It is no secret that green spaces in urban environments can be greatly impactful for mental health, especially for those who may not have a garden of their own who during Lockdown are forced to experience a greater degree of confinement without fresh air.  Cyclists, dog-walkers and people playing ball games may for some make a park feel no less crowded than a street at certain times, which is why a cemetery, which demands an air of untroubled quiet, could be the perfect alternative.  

However, cemeteries are not immune from human disturbance, the presence of dead bodies in the ground cannot stop people littering plastics, metals or needles which can prove lethal to animals.  Therefore, it is still important that volunteers or owners of the cemetery make efforts to protect the land and animals from human rubbish.

About the Author: Annabel Bourne is a a second year English Literature student at the University of York, and this year I have spent some time helping as a volunteer at York cemetery, which itself has 24 acres of land containing a great variety of wildlife including exotic trees in the Victorian section, and a butterfly population that ‘is as good as some of Britain’s more famous nature reserves’.


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