As we peer in through the railings or seek shelter in the lych-gate, escaping the rain that drips impassively from yew and ivy, we are poised by a threshold space. The graveyard navigates many borders. It is ‘marginal or liminal (in both social and geographic terms)’ (Young and Light, p.64) and, drawing on Maddrell and Sideways’s definition of deathscapes, can ‘intersect and interact with other moments and topographies, including those of sovereignty…memory…and work, life and beauty’ (quoted in Young and Light, p.63). This is a place of multiple meanings. As Clements observes, ‘it may be a gateway to heaven (for Christians), the end of life (for atheists), and a taboo place for the superstitious’ (Clements, p.471).
Strolling along the well-tended gravel paths or clambering over crumbling, bindweed ensnared masonry, we can easily slip between multiple worlds. In their considered and sensitive study of roadside memorials, Clark and Franzmann note how these sites challenge ideas about what is public/private or secular/sacred space: they blur the ‘somewhere that is nowhere in particular rather than a special place, and something that is passed by rather than permanently set aside as a place of pilgrimage’ (p.586). As we stroll or clamber, are we visitor, pilgrim, the transitory or the purposeful?
Yet, at its very heart, this is hallowed ground where ‘the terrain of the living meets with the terrain of the dead’. (Miller and Rivera, p.348). Such communion shapes a place of rite and ritual – from the scattering of earth and roses to the wreath at Christmas gently laid. Here, absence become presence and we, the living, both commune with the past and glimpse our own futures. These are foci – our memento mori – for grief, loss, remembering and meditation.
However, this relationship between living and dead has, historically, been one in flux. Situated next to the church, graveyards were, until the late eighteenth century, at the heart (both geographically and metaphorically) of the community: there was ‘familiarity and spatial intimacy between the living and the dead’. (Johnson, 2008, p.780). Then, as space became scarce and fear of contagion grew, the dead were relocated to the margins. New cemeteries were built on the edge of towns surrounded by walls, hedges or railings: physically and symbolically ‘sequestering the dead from the living’ (Rugg, p.262). These were ‘other’ spaces ‘clearly differentiated from the ‘everyday’ spaces of the living’. (Young and Light, p.64).
By the later nineteenth century, the role and purpose of cemeteries received another twist. Now enclosed by the towns they once delineated, they were ‘increasingly conceived as places to be visited and incorporated into everyday practice’ (Young and Light, p.65). Today, they are not only sites for remembering but for dog-walking, eating lunch, tracing family history or, for realising less innocent purposes: drink, drug-taking and sexual encounters. As we saw with the Victorian railways, liminal sites often attract transgression. A re-assertion of life perhaps in the midst of death?
For Foucault, the cemetery is an example of a heterotopia: sites which ‘mirror and at the same time distort, unsettle or invert other spaces’ (Johnson, 2013, p.790-791). It is a place ‘unlike other cultural spaces’ (Foucault, p.4) yet which is connected with all sites as ‘each individual each family has relatives in the cemetery’. As Johnson notes, cemeteries incorporate many of the characteristics of heterotopias that Foucault identified. They are ‘privileged or sacred’ sites reserved for a critical rite of passage; they ‘contain multiple meanings; and they are both utterly mundane and extraordinary’ (Johnson, 2013, p.799). Intriguingly, they also begin ‘to function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time’ (Foucault, p.6). The graveyard elides ‘slices of time’ since ‘the dead are outside of time, relegated to what Foucault terms a quasi éternité‘ (Gandy, p.733).
The churchyard as a site where time warps and folds in on itself is beautifully captured in David Gladwell’s 1976 experimental film Requiem for a Village. A dark and poetic meditation on change, loss, belief and tradition, it elegaically melts the ‘barriers of logic, physics and time’ (Scovell, p.81). An old man tending the graves in a Suffolk churchyard – himself out of time in a world of estate development and already decaying shopping centres – recollects episodes from his past: casting witchbones as a folk-cure for horses, the day of his marriage, working on the harvest. As the narrative inflects past, present and future, memory becomes tangible as the dead companions from the old man’s youth literally rise from their grave and form a procession into the church where he joins them for his wedding vows. This temporal dislocation is playfully caught when the grave tender addresses an anecdote to an unseen companion he calls ‘David’. We assume this may – in the style of a documentary – be the film-maker; until the camera cuts to show the inscription on the grave being tended. The body it contains is that of ‘David’.
So before we leave our graveyard, let us take a final look around. We may see toys, flowers, photographs, candles and other personal artefacts placed carefully around the graves. They reassure the absent (and, of course, those that remain) and ‘link the tangible present to an intangible past (and future) of imaginary times and spaces’ (Clements, p.476). They also invite stories; and, with the epitaphs and inscriptions, offer clues and plot-lines that we craft into narratives breathing life into those that lie beneath us.
But graveyards can be found in our organisations too. Perhaps as a metaphor: ‘it’s like a graveyard around here’; or ‘welcome to the graveyard of good ideas’. Yet look carefully and they have a more pervasive, almost tangible presence. As we saw in Ghost, photographs of former business school deans – a ‘picture book of the dead’ (Orr, p.1047) – or a former colleague’s chair are memorials as potent as any funerary urn. They console, challenge, intrigue, inspire. Beyond that the very warp and weft of organisational life are testament to those that have gone: the buildings we work in; the strategies we execute; the processes we follow; the cultures we engender. Former hands and minds have played their part in shaping these and it is incurious of us – and perhaps dangerous – to overlook the memorials that surround us. Our gaze is often too fixed on the future: we forecast, we plan, we scour the horizon for opportunity and threat. But, as Requiem for a Village darkly reminds us, the past has power. It also has wisdom and knowledge – and we neglect this at our peril. And each fading photo, each duty chair is our own memento mori – our presence is but transitory and we too shall pass. What is the memorial we leave behind; what communions shall we have with the living? For by ignoring the elegiac, we perhaps compose our own and final elegy.
Clark, J. and Franzmann, M. (2006) ‘Authority from grief, presence and place in the making of roadside memorials’, Death Studies, (30) pp. 579-599.
Clements, P. (2017) ‘Highgate Cemetery Heterotopia: A Creative Counterpublic Space’, Space and Culture, 20(4), pp. 470–484.
Foucault, M. (1984)  Des espaces autre. [Of other spaces] Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5, pp. 1-9.
Gandy, M. (2012) ‘Queer ecology: Nature, sexuality, and heterotopic alliances’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, (30) pp. 727-747.
Johnson, P. (2008) ‘The modern cemetery: A design for life’, Social and Cultural Geography, 9(7), pp. 777–790.
Johnson, P. (2013) ‘The geographies of heterotopia’, Geography Compass, 7(11), pp. 790–803.
Miller, D. S. and Rivera, J. D. (2006) ‘Hallowed Ground, Place, and Culture’, Space and Culture, 9(4), pp. 334–350.
Orr, K. (2014) ‘Local Government Chief Executives ’ Everyday Hauntings : Towards a Theory of Organizational Ghosts’, Organization Studies, 35(7), pp. 1041–1061.
Rugg, J. (2000) ‘Defining the place of burial: What makes a cemetery a cemetery?’, Mortality, 5(3), pp. 259-275.
Scovell, A. (2017), Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. Auteur Publishing.
Young, C. and Light, D. (2016) ‘Interrogating spaces of and for the dead as “alternative space”: cemeteries, corpses and sites of Dark Tourism.’, International Review of Social Research, 6(2), pp. 61-72.