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Horror films might portray graveyards as spooky places full of ghosts and ghouls but many of us actually find them peaceful spots to while away an hour or two. They are often good places to look for wildlife as well. Acting as nature reserves in all but name, they are important for biodiversity. Of course, rural churchyards have always been wildlife rich. The same applies to woodland burial sites, a relatively new type of cemetery. However, as budget restrictions increasingly force urban councils to cut back on non-essential services, city graveyards have become less manicured and consequently also more attractive to a host of species. This means that where there are graveyards, there are usually wildlife havens too, however built-up the surroundings are.
The Parish Church
The country churchyard has long been home to a wealth of wildlife, from the proverbial bats in the belfry to the mosses and lichens growing on tombstones. In the past, livestock was sometimes grazed within the walls, resulting in grass of various lengths. This would have created habitat for invertebrates and small mammals, which would in turn have attracted toads, corvids, owls and foxes. Ivy-clad walls provided nesting sites for one of our most rapidly declining birds, the spotted flycatcher, a classic churchyard species. As well as bats, swifts and barn owls often nested in church towers. And dominating all was often at least one old yew tree, with its dark green needles and distinctive berries. There are many myths and stories explaining why yews are so common in graveyards, some more plausible than others.
As farming became more intensified following the Second World War, any neighbouring churchyards became important refuges for wildlife. Although there was a period when church authorities favoured manicured and over tidied areas, in general they face less pressures than the surrounding countryside. For example, without the overuse of pesticides and fertilisers, a variety of plants continue to flourish while outside vegetation becomes increasingly homogenous. And the unimproved grassland within church boundaries can be rich in certain fungi species.
More people now recognise just how important our rural graveyards are for biodiversity. Charities such as the Wildlife Trusts and Caring for God’s Acre, as well as the Church of England, offer advice and resources for those looking after burial grounds to help them preserve everything from lichen to waxcap fungi, alongside their human heritage.
Even before budget cuts meant that urban burial grounds became wilder, they were often some of the only green spaces in some of our cities. As our urban populations grew during the Industrial Revolution, towns and cities needed more cemetery space. Some of these became vast areas, with many having to resort to interring newer remains above existing burials. These green spaces were, and continue to provide, oases of green within increasingly built-up environments. Some were once on the edge or even outside the town itself but have now been swallowed up by urban sprawl. In this way they bring a small piece of the countryside with them into the city.
It is not just council cutbacks that have helped our urban cemeteries become wildlife havens, however. There is a growing awareness of their potential as multi-purpose public spaces. Organisations such as the UN recognise that public spaces are vital for improving the quality of urban life, aiding health and mental well-being and reducing crime. This awareness has led to many burial grounds emphasising the quiet, green, semi-natural places they are, perfect for reflection, walks or events.
Cemeteries such as Arnos Vale in Bristol now offer tours, educational visits for schools, wildlife trails, bat walks and open spaces for weddings. Urban wildlife inevitably benefits from this approach. As long as they don’t become too overgrown and choked with ivy and vegetation, urban graveyards can be home to everything from green woodpeckers and foxes to bees and hedgehogs.
Of all our urban graveyards, London’s Victorian cemeteries are possibly the grandest and most imposing. Between 1833 and 1841, private companies built seven new cemeteries in areas that were at that time away from highly populated zones. The most famous is Highgate Cemetery, burial place of Karl Marx, Douglas Adams, George Eliot and many more prominent people.
Until that time, small parish churchyards had to cope with the capital’s increasing population. Overcrowded graveyards caused huge problems including contamination of nearby water sources. The new ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries (as they are known) offered burial space on the edge of the city. In addition, they offered beautifully landscaped surroundings for mourners to walk in peace and safety when visiting departed loved ones. Avenues of trees and architecturally designed tombs became the norm.
However, as the 20th century progressed, the growing popularity of cremation meant that London’s Victorian cemeteries became less desirable resting places. As revenues fell, there was little incentive for the private companies owning them to invest. For decades they became overgrown and often dangerous places. Wildlife, however, moved in, and happily, all seven are now managed to some extent for nature. Although some of them are still very overgrown, work is ongoing to clear some of the thickest ivy. This will allow other plants to grow and also preserves vulnerable tombs. They now include valuable areas of woodland and scrub, providing habitat for a range of species including linnets, skylarks, foxes, bats, butterflies and one of London’s newer arrivals, the ring-necked parakeet.
A different type of wildlife haven is provided by some of our coastal graveyards. In particular, the west coast of Scotland and its islands are home to a distinctive type of cemetery, lacking in trees and ivy but wildlife rich, nonetheless. Like many of the UK’s churches and graveyards, they were often built on top of prehistoric burial sites. They have had the same function for millennia. We can’t know whether our ancestors chose these dramatic locations for their beauty or for more practical reasons, such as easy access by sea. They may have seen them as liminal places, closer to the threshold between the living and the dead, making it easier for spirits to move on. Whatever their motivations, and whether you are spiritual or not, they are now beautiful and stirring places to visit.
One of the wildlife highlights of a coastal graveyard is the range of lichens that grow there. Tombstones everywhere are extremely important for lichens, especially where there are no local rock outcrops. The British Lichen Society estimates that some graveyards have over 100 species. The different types of stone used attract different lichens. Many coastal locations though are especially favourable because of the lichen-friendly, pollution-free air. Lichens also prefer unshaded areas so benefit from the fact coastal cemeteries have few, if any, trees and little ivy and are rarely overgrown.
The more open turf areas of coastal burial grounds are also good for grassland flowers such as vetches and trefoils, clovers and orchids. These attract plenty of pollinators and other invertebrates, in turn bringing in birds like wheatears, starlings and meadow pipits. Kestrels, peregrines and short-eared owls may then prey on them. Meanwhile, damp areas can attract snipe, toads and frogs.
Peaceful Havens for People and Wildlife
The Church of England estimates that its churchyards make up an area equivalent to the size of a small national park. And that is just one denomination of one faith. If we add in the burial grounds of all faiths, it is clear that they make up a vast area. They range from the quintessential English village churchyard to the vast Gothic graveyards of Victorian London. And from the vital green oases of our other cities to the windswept coastal cemeteries of the Highlands and Islands. They are being increasingly seen as important green spaces for humans. Likewise, we now recognise how much they can improve biodiversity. They offer space for a huge range of plant, animal and bird species, making them true wildlife havens.
Caring for God’s Acre and the Church of England have some great resources about the type of wildlife you might find in our graveyards.
Although Peter Ross only touches on wildlife in his book A Tomb with a View, it is a wonderful exploration of our cemeteries. There are some fascinating stories and personalities from across Britain and Ireland.
This is a wonderful history of London’s Victorian Magnificent Seven cemeteries. Fully illustrated, the book has a wealth of stories from each of the sites.
Jean Sprackland’s beautiful book is a personal look at how our relationship with death has changed over time and what this means for our graveyards.