Thursday, March 1, 2012

A matter of life and death

THERE was a time, not so very long ago, when it seemed like Arnos Vale Cemetery could be redeveloped for housing and lost forever. But even the faithful activists who camped at the front of the cemetery to prevent the gates being closed could never have imagined the transformation the cemetery would see in a little over a decade.

Following a £5.4m restoration, which was unveiled last year, the cemetery today looks as fine as it must have done in its Victorian prime. But it has also become an unlikely visitor attraction, complete with shop and regular school group visits and wildlife walks.

Now things have come full circle, with the Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust, the charity that manages the site, announcing that new graves will be dug at the cemetery for the first time in decades.

For the trust's new chief executive, Juliette Randall, the transformation is a matter of local pride.

The former career civil servant is Brislington born and raised, and says she clearly remembers how the people of the district were horrified by then owner Tony Towner's announcement that he could not afford to maintain the cemetery and invited people to "dig up their dead".

There was a massive outcry and the Evening Post began its campaign for the cemetery to be bought from Mr Towner and its future safeguarded.

"It's a very special place," Juliette says, as we walk through the rows of ivy-embraced tombs.

"It's an historic place, but also it is a working cemetery.

"The campaigners fought and won the right to keep the gates open, and we've never stopped burials in old family graves here.

"But now it seems fitting to plan the first burials in new graves on the site since the cemetery was purchased from Tony Towner more than a decade ago. We have set aside a clear area of lawn, not far from the main entrance, in which we will be able to accommodate 20 new graves," Juliette explains.

"But we have also surveyed the site and come up with other clear spaces that could accommodate a grave, dotted around the cemetery – so we will be able to offer 40 new formal graves in total.

"Our volunteers are currently working to find out if there are other graves on the site that could be used as new graves. There was a tendency among rich Victorian families to sometimes buy plots but never actually use them

"So if we can find these unused graves, and are unable to trace any surviving family members connected to the original owners, we will of course be able to use these graves too.

"We get a lot of interest from people who would like to be buried or have loved ones buried in such a special cemetery, so to be able to offer new graves is wonderful – it is also an opportunity for us to fund our work by the traditional means for the cemetery for a while."

As well as the new formal graves, Juliette is also keen to develop a new area of for woodland burials.

"We have an old orchard area at the top end of the cemetery, and I think it would be ideal for woodland burials. If that goes ahead, you could be looking at hundreds of new burials here over the next few years."

With 150,000 graves on 45 acres, the cemetery has been a crowded place almost since its foundation in 1839.

It is the home of 25 listed monuments – graves of historical and cultural importance, including the final resting place of Victorian educationalist Mary Carpenter, 19th century philanthropist Joseph Williams, and most famously the tomb of Rajah Rammohun Roy – the Indian reformist who died during a visit to Bristol in 1833.

The restoration project – which included £4.8m of National Lottery Heritage Fund cash – has seen every kind of work undertaken, from the rebuilding of the cemetery pathways to the restoration of the chapel bell.

A gift shop opened at the site last year, and Juliette has driven through plans for a permanent cafe beside the former non- conformist chapel, which will open at the end of March.

The restoration also saw the former non-conformist chapel transformed into a new education room, while the nearby Anglican Chapel has also been fully refurbished, and reverted to its original use as a venue for funeral services.

Another of Juliette's out-of-the-box ideas is for the chapel to be used as a venue for weddings.

"Why not?" she smiles. "It's a beautiful building, and there is a perfect setting outside for photographs. It would be quirky, I admit, to get married in a cemetery – but there are plenty of people out there who are keen on having a quirky wedding.

"We're currently talking to the diocese about having the building re-consecrated for weddings, as the chapel was only ever consecrated for funerals."

For Juliette, it is a world away from her civil service past.

"It's a lovely place to come to work each day," she says.

"I don't imagine I'll ever have time to find out all the fascinating stories behind the people that are buried here, but it's fascinating to pick up new bits of the history each day."

A matter of life  and death

1812 overture andy kennedy roy pearson

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