The immediate response when I tell people where I volunteer is usually, “So you like, look at dead bodies and stuff?” and the answer is: No, I don’t. Nobody in our voluntary group does; that’s the job of morgues, funeral homes, and crematoriums. I can understand why you’d jump to that conclusion, though. It’s quite an unusual voluntary job.
“So what do you do?” You might then ask.
Lots, actually! We keep the grounds clean and tidy with regular litter picks, we plant flowers and preen trees/shrubbery, we locate graves to loved ones in search, we clean headstones, we maintain two baby memorials, and we restored both of our derelict chapels – one into a peace garden which houses flowers, memorial plaques, and spaces to light candles; the other into a public hub for our community. We also hold annual Christmas carol services, war memorial services, and year-round we fund-raise for the upkeep of our cemetery. There’s always something to do and we’re always busy.
For some people, a cemetery is a place of peace and quiet mourning, for others it’s a place with a morbid feel, and I suppose it can be both depending on who you are. For me, it’s beautiful and calm. We’re lucky to have such a dedicated team of volunteers who keep it pristine. There’s the added bonus of always being in range of a cute dog passing through with its owner, or a few scurrying grey squirrels waiting for you to feed them. (We also have local cats, hedgehogs, bats, bees, and the occasional fox!)
I’ve always had a fondness for places rich with history, and the cemetery I work at is no exception. There are countless stories to be told about many different graves and the chapel buildings dating back to the 1800’s. These are what drew me in along with my general fascination with the unique landscape and tranquillity of a cemetery.
If you didn’t know, my boyfriend Sam is the reason I volunteer there at all. He was there before me since it’s around where he lives, and he took me to an event one Summer day and I immediately signed up. I’ve been there for a good few years now and have since won an award for my work which I’m very proud of!
Along with this award, our group is also honoured with a Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service (MBE status) and in my opinion is very well-deserved.
Since volunteering, my interest in cemeteries has only grown, and Sam and I have a plan to visit as many UK cemeteries as we can. If you’re interested in seeing me document those visits, you can check out my taphophile Instagram here: @gravecuriosity.
If this post makes you interested in visiting a cemetery, here are some tips:
- Be respectful. Stick to paths where possible, don’t walk over graves or fallen headstones, and put your litter in the bin. Please don’t consume alcohol on the premises either – that’s actually illegal, so it should go without saying.
- Go within opening hours. Some cemeteries are only open to the public during certain hours which are usually listed on a website/social media and/or on the entrance of the cemetery itself. Don’t trespass. It’s not cool.
- It’s not a park. Don’t sit on the grass like it’s a park and definitely don’t linger in large, loud groups. It looks like you’re loitering and generally being disrespectful, even if this isn’t your intention. Sit on designated benches for a while by all means, but cemeteries aren’t places for picnics or raised voices. Bear all this in mind.
- Try to visit when volunteers are present. Cemeteries with Friends groups (Friends of ___ Cemetery) will have times and places where they meet, either weekly or monthly, and it’s always a good idea to try and visit when you know the volunteers will be there. They can offer you information and, if it’s a place like ours, a hot drink and friendly conversation.
- Donate if you can. Cemeteries like ours will always be accepting donations. If you visit on a day where the volunteers are present, consider leaving one. Any amount helps and it will be greatly appreciated.
If you’re thinking of actually volunteering at a cemetery, I recommend:
- Searching for/asking at local cemeteries within commuting distance. You might not know which have groups set up ready to take on volunteers (and trust me, we’re almost always looking for new volunteers) so just look into it! (You can also check with this National Federation of Cemetery Friends list to see if any are near you!)
- Turning up and talking to the volunteers first. Get a feel for the people there and show your face, inquire about the work they do, ask how you could help with what you can offer. If you’re worried about what you can physically contribute, this would be a great time to discuss other ways you can help too. You’ll also learn how they’re scheduled.
June 1st – 7th is Volunteers Week, a perfect time to get involved!
“What if there isn’t a group near me? How can I help my local cemetery?”
This was our case, once upon a time over a decade ago. Groups have to start somewhere, but since I haven’t been there from the start I would highly recommend visiting cemeteryfriends.com (National Federation of Cemetery Friends) who will be able to provide you with lots of information. Get in contact if you’re interested (and I believe they also have a book you can buy with everything you need to know about starting a group). You’ll also want to get in contact with your local council and perhaps your local neighbourhood watch group – that’s where you’ll locate volunteers, I bet!
All in all, volunteering has been – and still is – a very humbling and rewarding experience. The group is lovely and we all get on incredibly well like a little family, and believe it or not we do have a laugh and a joke (within respectful reason, obviously). I’m giving back to a community and doing some good in the world – what’s not to love?
If you have any questions, feel free to ask here or on Twitter: @eldervex!