Gravestones against walls
July 25, 2006 7:53 AM   Subscribe

In my impressionable youth I was told that the gravestones in coastal SE England towns were put against the churchyard walls to obviate church and thus town identification by the Luftwaffe.

Now I am older and have gained some reasoning skills, it seems to me that this might not be the reason. 1) Even if you got rid of the obvious markers of the gravestones, bombers would have still been able to see the very obvious church (they're usually the largest buildings and grounds in a community area), plus there would have been a whole bunch of houses. 2) It seems to me that the more likely explanation is that they wanted to add some more human sponge to the trifle that is a graveyard and so removed the markers that identified occupied spots.
I haven't been able to find anything online. Anyone got any pointers?
posted by tellurian to Society & Culture (11 answers total)
While I can't offer an answer, in the various English church yards I've visited, I came up with the same conclusion that you did. If it helps, the church yards I explored were in Surrey, so not quite coastal.
posted by Atreides at 8:34 AM on July 25, 2006

I'm going with the "freeing up graveyard space" theory too. I'm pretty sure getting a burial spot in a church graveyard only guarentees you space there for a finite amount of time, after which no-one who knew you will be around to complain that they're moving you and re-using the space.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:37 AM on July 25, 2006

The reason cemetery markers can be found along the walls are two fold: first, like you mentioned, it frees up space for more recent stones to be in the ground. Second, graveyards are not permanent, and older stones from the town green, or from small churchyard cems, were moved there during the construction of the new cem.

Case in point: Grove St Cem (formerly 'The New Haven Burying Ground.') - from their website: "During the 1880's a major project was initiated...a resolution for removal of stones from the Green placed on City plots was adopted relegating the colonial monuments to placement in alphabetical order along the north and west walls."

During the mid-19th century through late Victorian periods, the idea of what a cemetery was was being reworked. There was a lot of shifting colonial stones around to make them conform to the new idea of orderliness and the afterlife and such. Moving old stones into the wall was thrifty, and allowed slightly better preservation of the old stones (because they'd be surrounded by masonry, not sticking up anymore).

See also Wood's "The New England Village," for more on how the Victorians basically re-wrote the history of colonial New England on the landscape.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:51 AM on July 25, 2006

2 makes more sense. Recycling grave sites was common practice in parts of Europe at certain times. Why not save the headstones.

mmm, cadavery tiramisu
posted by 517 at 8:52 AM on July 25, 2006

Crap, I read SE England as SE New England. Ignore my book suggestion.

I have one somewhere that addresses the British and Continental reworking of cemeteries - basically, though, the British tend to have less of a problem moving stones or cemeteries. In general, whenever a small churchyard cemetery needed to be uprooted due to new construction/changes/abandonment, they'd move the stones to the nearest cemetery that was still operational and throw them into or up against the wall. Most of the time the relatives of people commemorated on much older stones aren't going to raise a fuss because it's 200-300+ years in the past and they don't come visiting on holidays.

Oh, and the bodies almost never get moved, just as a side-note.
posted by cobaltnine at 8:55 AM on July 25, 2006

Response by poster: Atreides and EndsOfInvention - cites please (especially those that would 'lay to rest' the idea of 'not making us targets of the Luftwaffe') or would confirm my tiramasu theory.
cobaltnine - in the books that you have that talk about reworking of cemeteries, is there any mention of moving gravestones to confuse the airplanes that might fly over and identify towns?
posted by tellurian at 9:28 AM on July 25, 2006

Following up on cobaltnine's useful remarks on changing ideas of cemetaries, if you can get hold of James Fenton's "The Art of the Dead" (Feb. 23 NYRB, unfortunately only a teaser online) it's got some interesting things to say on the subject (he's talking about Italy, but the general trend was pan-European).
posted by languagehat at 9:32 AM on July 25, 2006

I never found any mention of moving cemeteries specifically during the war, but my focus is on the US and I only incidentially run into things regarding Europe. I believe the book I ran into that mentioned the greater inclination of cemeteries to be reused for 'secular' purposes was in Nigel Barley's "Dancing on the Grave" (1997), but it could be, er, another book in that year.

The only things I do know is that cemeteries with stone walls got to keep their walls, but cemeteries with metal fences did not.

Logically, there's your other observation too, that a churchyard's going to look like a churchyard no matter what, especially from the sky. Actually, aerial views can quite readily show cemeteries that don't have stones anymore, because the plant growth will vary in a particular way - that's one way of finding burial grounds and archaeological sites.
posted by cobaltnine at 10:11 AM on July 25, 2006

Response by poster: Interesting, but I'm not sure that I have a definitive answer. Thank you for your (cobaltnine) input anyway. Any MOD bods like to chime in? No? I thought not.
posted by tellurian at 10:42 AM on July 25, 2006

You demand...and I found something at least.

"Traditionally churchyards were managed in much the same way as any other meadowland, either being grazed by sheep or goats or mown by scythe two or three times per year with the rights of herbage going to the incumbent. This is the perfect form of management for this type of grassland and, indeed, gives it its name of 'semi-natural'. However, over the past 30 years new expectations for the countryside have crept in, leading to the uprooting of headstones and the intensification of mowing regimes."

About two thirds down this page on the unique biodiversity found in British churchyards.
Its at least a modern explaination for some church yards and it rejects the Luftwaffe theory (at least some).
posted by Atreides at 11:12 AM on July 25, 2006

Best answer: Sorry, I have no sources, all my books on death and burial are in a box in my parent's house, and I'm not.

But I studied archaeology and I've spent more time than is possibly healthy in churchyards. Here are all the reasons I know off or can think off why they might have moved the gravestones:

1) They have built something in the churchyard and they moved the markers to make space for it.

2) They've deconsecrated the church and moved the gravestones to the sides to get them out the way.

3) The gravestones were getting old/falling apart/falling over so they moved them out of the way so that they don't fall over or break.

Plus what everyone else said, and your theory about making space. Although only a few churchyards are still taking bodies, because they are full, so if they have moved them to make more room for people, I don't think it would have happened in recent times.

I've never heard of them moving them to upset the Luftwaffe, I would think they would be looking for more noticable landmarks like buildings and geography rather than some small slabs of stone. But just because I haven't heard about it, doesn't mean it didn't happen.

I've not spent a lot of time in Surrey churches, so I don't know if there were any local circumstances that influenced it. And I'm not entirely sure if you are talking about some stones being moved (which is a fairly common sight across the UK) or all the stones in the churchyard (which I've only come across when the church has been deconsecrated).

In Britain, unlike in some places, once you get buried that's your spot for perpetuity, although it has been suggested that we change that slightly.

Our churchyards are very full, have you ever noticed how old churchyards are often several feet higher than the road? That's the bodies. And over time the graves haven't been dug in any sort of order, they often cut into one another, bones from one body were thrown in with the backfill for new graves. So the bodies and the gravestones don't always tie up. Don't look too closely at the spoil from animal burrows in churchyards, the critters turn up all sorts of stuff...

My short answer, is that that they moved them to make room, but it might not be to make room for more burials.
posted by Helga-woo at 1:34 PM on July 26, 2006

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