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Updated Tuesday, 22nd September 2009

Crematorium and cemetery registrar Angela Abbot talks to us about memorialisation and the emergence of "fairy villages" as well as the sustainability of burials

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Copyright The Open University


My name is Angela Abbot. I’m the Crematorium and Cemetery Registrar for Milton Keynes Council. I manage and care for the Bereavement Services, and that includes one crematorium at the moment and ten cemeteries. One of the main issues with cemeteries is the lack of space for people. Milton Keynes has a large, growing population and we’re trying very hard to keep the amount of cemetery space available, trying to get that open for people so that they can have graves available, and we’re also dealing with the concern about safety of memorials and the impact that has on bereaved people and obviously the older cemeteries. With the crematorium, we’re obviously moving towards more of a modernisation of the service, trying to keep things going. As trends come in, we’re trying to improve and follow people’s wants and needs really as to what they need for their bereavement care.

People do a great deal of different memorialisation. Everyone’s memorial seems to be completely different now. They choose completely individual things. Some people have very unusual - quirky things, I would say. They have things such as a … we have a boxed Freddie Mercury by one of the graves, and when you walk up to it, it sings and moves in the box, and it’s next to a traditional style headstone, and the people obviously have a great deal of need for that sort of thing. We have a large amount of solar lamps now, they’re big things. We have coloured lights all the way through. When I go around at night, it’s like a little fairy village with them all glowing and sort of individuality with them. Some people have coloured chippings, some people have blue chippings, some people have windmills, they have musical windmills, they have holographic windmills, they have all sorts of quirky things. Some people leave cigarettes on their plots. Some people leave cans of beer or drink or just letters or drawings from young children. And it’s just a remarkable amount of choice of memorialisation that people have individually. They also then choose sort of what will be called more standardised memorials, such as marble stones or different types of stones, and there is a complete difference between each people.

As people are individual in the world and life, they’re individual when they choose their memorials. The headstones that they choose can be just black granite with gold lettering, and that’s quite a standard thing. They just choose them out of a catalogue and that serves them fine, that’s not a problem for them. Other people want something completely different. They want an engraving or they want something completely odd or quirky on it. I have no objection to people having a different choice. I like the different choice, I think that gives the character to the cemeteries. I think that gives people a great deal of comfort. Some people find it very difficult. Some people find it very challenging to go to a cemetery and have a grave next to them that’s got an awful lot of bits and pieces on there and they have just a standard kerbing set, and that’s where the issues of memorialisation are very difficult to manage. Some people would like the traditional cemetery, in a sense a military type cemetery which has a great deal of comfort for people, but other people absolutely love doing their own individuality on their graves.

Milton Keynes has quite a high death rate for children, and we have a lot of children’s memorials, and it’s very nice to see younger children being brought up to visit their brother or sister and to feel that there’s a place that they can need and there’s some comfort for them, and that really is what I’m looking at. When I look at my cemeteries, and I see them with all their bits and pieces on, I see a cemetery that’s full of love and care, and that really is the most important thing I think that I can offer the people is somewhere where they can go and feel that they’re remembering the person and caring for the person. They’re not really interested in the overall design of the cemetery in a way. They’re not looking for it to be a standard design. They’re looking for it to be an individual space where they can go and remember somebody that they loved and cared about a great deal.

Well, one of the ways I manage the memorials and the tension that it causes within that is by trying to allow people enough space between the plots or again by making people have a look at the spaces available before they actually go out and have the burial or the service in the cemetery. One of the important things is that they can see what it’s like before they have the burial. A lot of people don’t do that. It’s not a sort of a pre-requirement that you go and have a look around and choose your spot. People don’t like the idea of shopping around, they think of it as being disrespectful. I always tell people to do that. I always say to them, "well these are the cemeteries we’ve got space in, go and have a look, see what you like, if you like the cemeteries, if there’s a character that you like to them and then we can then choose a spot for you if there’s one available." And we have made areas available for people in an older style cemetery such as this and we’ve made it sort of available sort of just against the edge of the wall because they wanted a more traditional type of burial, and people need to know what else is next to them.

And so we manage that by, obviously, helping people, giving them as much information as possible and also, trying to make sure that people understand their boundaries. One of the main things is not really allowing people to go too far over their boundaries. If they start to spread all their items and it starts to go into other people’s plots, they don’t think about the encroachment, and so it’s carefully managed. We try to carefully advise people that, you know, you just need to rein it in a little bit more because the next person or people around you might find it a bit upsetting to find that. So we try very carefully to manage that. We don’t necessarily move them off and just say "you’re not having that !" but we do try to give people an idea of how other people, in a sense their neighbours visiting them, feel. It’s like having a house that’s clad in stone cladding and the next along that isn’t clad in stone cladding. It’s a difference between them and people have to sort of work around that and be used to their neighbours and learn about how to be patient with it and to sort of try to do an individual memorial, and so we try to manage it that way.

Well one of the future prospects for cemeteries and the trends within them I think is sort of difficult to predict, I think people, we didn’t think that people would be going back to the old style kerbing and sort of big stones really. That’s something that wasn’t really expected because years ago we removed them all. Before, you know, 1974, they were taken away because people didn’t like them, and that’s going back. So I think one of the trends is going back to a more purposeful memorial, something that is perhaps more solid, and that’s one of the issues with memorialisation is the safety of the stones, and therefore if they’re feeling that the memorial’s going to be safe and it’s going to be secure for many years, I think people have more of a choice of saying, "well, actually I want to make this now, because it’s going to be there for years and I know it’s going to be safe, I’m going to make it something very special and I’m going to make it sort of permanent really."

So a lot of people like the idea of the permanence of the cemetery. However, one of the other issues is the reuse of graves, and that’s something that ,obviously, a lot of authorities will be deciding on what to do with. In Milton Keynes, we have a large number of cemeteries with still space available, but one of the problems that we have with that is that local people want to buried locally, and what we’re asking people to do is travel from one side of Milton Keynes to our new cemetery which is about twelve miles away. And in a major bigger city, such as Liverpool or London, they probably wouldn’t have an issue with that, but in Milton Keynes people feel the need to have more individual local spaces, and that’s one of the issues that we have. But one of the trends that we’re trying to do is to allow more memorialisation. We’re trying to encourage people to have wooden memorials or different types of memorialisation to actually be more, in a sense inventive, with their memorials and try and give the cemetery something very special and try to put ideas in that will have a sustainability such as grass cutting only between stones rather than spraying and all sorts of items like that.

I love my job. I’ve been dealing with burials since 1980 when I first started at Milton Keynes Council, and the job that I do now I absolutely adore. I love it. I wouldn’t think of a better job that I could do. It’s a passion for me. It’s not just a job, I’m afraid, it’s my whole life. My whole life revolves around my job, and I absolutely love anything to do with burials or cremation, and it makes me seem particularly odd but I absolutely love it. I love the fact that I can try and think about what people will want from us. I try and put myself in their perspective and say if that was my mum or dad, what would they be feeling and how can I help them? How can I help them within my professional job? Someone who’s obviously dealing with it on a day to day basis can help the people that are completely alien to them. How can I give them that advice because they’re struggling to cope with the bereavement and death of someone that they love and care for, and how can I deal with it to give them the advice so they can choose the right thing for them?

Find out more

Death and medicine: postponement and promise

The medicalised context of bereavement





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