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The significance of cemeteries

Almost every town in New Zealand has got at least one, but how often do we ask ourselves what they mean to us and our community? Doris Francis et al. (2005) in their anthological/sociological study of cemeteries describe cemeteries as a’… special, sacred spaces of personal, emotional and spiritual reclamation where the shattered self can be put back in place’ (The Secret Cemetery)John F. Llewellyn (1999) points out that for many people a cemetery is seen simply as a place for the burial of the dead. This the author believes dramatically understates the role of cemeteries. He points out that cemeteries are a place that ’embodies the history of nations and families, they hold treasures of art and architecture, they are places that reflect religious and spiritual thought, and they challenge us philosophically’ (A Cemetery Should be Forever).

Most readers would agree a cemetery is a sacred place, a place for mourning and ‘spiritual reclamation’ as Francis points out. Cemeteries can also be a forgotten place, hence it is Llewellyn's point that has particular resonance to me. Cemeteries can tell us a lot about our community, its early settlement and residents, its development and tribulations. Anyone who has visited a historic cemetery will understand what I mean yet many are in a state of neglect and I suspect in some cases records lost. Not surprising as long term care of cemeteries does pose a problem for some communities and cemetery administrators such as local authorities through either the lack of funds for their long term care or insight in regard to their importance.

Of possible assistance is the fact that cemeteries are becoming visitor attraction, certainly overseas, part of what Philip R Stone (2006) categorises as dark tourism. Stone points out that these dark resting places act ‘…as a romanticised, if not rather macabre, urban regeneration tool’ used to promote visitation to an area.

Sure our cemeteries don’t compare with cemeteries such as Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where such notable figures as Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison are buried or Westminster Abbey, London, where Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and William Shakespeare are buried but they do have local, regional and maybe even national interest worth saving at least for future generations.

Jonathan Casbolt


Doris Francis, Leonie Kellaher, Georgina Neophytou, The Secret Cemetery, Berg Publishers, 2005.

John F. Llewellyn, A Cemetery Should be Forever: The Challenge to Managers and Directors, Tropico Press, 1998

Philip Stone, Dr, A Dark Tourism Spectrum: towards a typology of death and macabre related tourist sites, attractions and exhibitions, TOURISM: An Interdisciplinary International Journal (2006).

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