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Graveyard Etiquette

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« on: July 28, 2009, 08:52:45 am »

Graveyard Etiquette

Claims that tourists have been picnicking on a war grave in Scotland have prompted a hostile reaction from some. But what are the rules for behaviour at a burial ground?

How should you act where there are dead bodies under foot?

When it comes to visiting burial grounds, many people are unsure exactly what is suitable behaviour. While some attend to pay their respects or remember lost loved ones, many visit cemeteries and churchyards for less profound reasons - a leisurely walk, to take in the view or just out of curiosity.

There are codes of conduct - it's just not always clear what these are.

When, last month, a church in Wimbledon, south London, invited motorists to park in its grounds, pictures of cars tightly packed next to headstones prompted outrage in the press. This week, visitors to Culloden Battlefield, near Inverness, were criticised for picnicking where soldiers had died in the 18th Century.

Burial ground etiquette is governed by a combination of convention, common sense and the law - both local and national.

The 1977 Local Authority Cemeteries' Order, which applies to England, Scotland and Wales, sets down some basic laws of conduct. Creating a disturbance in a churchyard, committing a nuisance, wilfully interfering with burials or graves, or playing games or sports, are all finable offences.

But the public are rarely aware of the order and, to complicate matters further, other rules are set out in by-laws - local laws that vary from place to place.

Even so, there has always been an underlying understanding - whether you're a mourning relative or just a visitor, says Peter Francis, spokesperson for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

Unruly children

"The correct behaviour almost dictates itself - most of it is common sense. Visitors are expected to be responsible, dignified and have a respectful manner," says Mr Francis.

The CWGC cares for hundreds of thousands of graves and encourages the act of remembrance. Mr Francis lumps playing football and having a picnic together as "inappropriate" behaviour when at a CWGC site. Whether "everyone knows" these rules, as he claims, could be up for debate.

Certainly, not everyone adheres to the unspoken guidelines. And the CWGC's current efforts to host school visits has not pleased everyone.

One recent letter to the commission complained: "[The children] ran about shouting and chasing each other around the graves and climbed all over the monument… I fear before long the cemeteries will become some sort of theme park for children's war games."

While games and dining are out - touching headstones and plaques is acceptable, says Mr Francis.

"[They] were made to be read and looked at - to commemorate lives. It is just a case of knowing when to draw the line."

But Lee Snashfold, director of Kensal Green Cemetery, in London, says the line between what is inappropriate or not changes with society's shifting values.

'Outrageous behaviour'

"There are three types of rules. Firstly the by-laws, secondly the cemetery regulations at each site," explains Mr Snashfold. "Then there are the rules of etiquette - common sense - that's anything that is an inconvenience to the people using the services."

He cites the example of how changes to shop opening hours have had a knock-on effect on how people remember the deceased. Shops used to close mid-week, and families would take the time to visit dead relatives, says Mr Snashfold.

"I suppose there's been a shift away from the tradition, but the underlying expectations and respect is there. It may have eroded over the years, but it will always be there."

Sometimes, though, decorum has clearly been forgotten.

"I've seen some outrageous behaviour," says Mr Snashfold. "There was once a photographer and model who were taking photos without permission. He was clicking away as a service was going on."

Even those who might be expected to know the customs inside out, can find they have misjudged society's views. When, in June, St Mary's church in Wimbledon Village charged tennis fans £20 a day to park in its burial ground, it justified the decision by saying the graves were 200 years old or more. No living relatives would be offended, it said. It also gave the money to charities.

But faced with public distaste, the church called a swift halt to the scheme.

No matter how much time has elapsed it should not affect conduct, says Canon Tim Barker.

"Churchyards are still special places - consecrated ground - whether a grave is a year old or from the 1840s, whether there are living relatives or not."

Some churchyards do fall into a state of disrepair; in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, a town church has become an antiques centre. The surrounding graveyard is now used as a public area, so the accepted conduct is more lenient.

"If a churchyard is closed for burials it may affect the public's view," says Canon Barker. "But most people know it is still somewhere to be respected and naturally adapt their behaviour."

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