Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park24 minute read

In what ways does Cosgrove and Jackson’s (1987) re-theorised cultural geography allow us to view the meanings attached to ‘deathscapes’, such as Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, as being inherently drawn from past power relations in their creation and maintenance?

Too often we allow our journeys to take place without engaging with the ways that past political economies shape the spaces where our feet take us. This realisation took place along my rehearsed morning commute through one of the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries of London, Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park (hereinafter THCP). Despite the gravestones and memorials providing clear evidence of past societies, I failed to realise the ways in which history impacts the space today. I argue that since landscapes are socially constructed (Cosgrove and Jackson, 1987), this impact of history makes THCP a microcosm of past societies, as past power relations are embedded into the meanings attached to death landscapes (deathscapes), during their creation. I aim to answer the question: ‘in what ways does Cosgrove and Jackson’s (1987) re-theorised cultural geography allow us to view the meanings attached to ‘deathscapes’, such as THCP, as being inherently drawn from past power relations in their creation and maintenance?’. Specifically, I answer this question by referring to the meanings attached to deathscapes as originating from past conceptions of class relations, gender politics and the ideas surrounding ‘nations’. This essay is structured as followed: Firstly I apply Cosgrove and Jackson’s re-theorised cultural geography to ‘deathscapes’ (Maddrell and Sidaway, 2010), in such a way that allows us to view cemeteries, as palimpsests; Secondly, provide a brief description of THCP to make reference to the relevance of a participatory observation methodology; Thirdly and fourthly, I reflect upon the ways in which the cemetery is inherently drawn from past conceptions of class relations, gender politics and the ideas surrounding ‘nations’, in its creation and maintenance respectively; To conclude, I finally suggest that in realising that cemeteries are microcosms of past societies, today’s conceptions of class relations, gender politics and ideas surrounding nations will ultimately shape future meanings attached to deathscapes.

Deathscapes as Palimpsests

Firstly, in developing Appadurai’s (1990, 1996) theory of applying ‘-scapes’ to places in order to understand them as contemporary social processes, deathscapes imbue the ways in which a cemetery is a place which is emotionally fraught, yet culturally and socially contested (Maddrell and Sidaway, 2010). We may view THCP as a deathscape, as despite the change of use of space, the site was once a place in which mourning was experienced, as well as expressed (Maddrell, 2010:p123), consequently shaping our attached meanings. As such, it seems relevant to apply Cosgrove and Jackson’s (1987) attempt to re-theorise culture and its relation to landscape, as through this shaping, past power relations embed into these meanings. Their re-theorisation of cultural geography is an attempt to critique and develop Ley’s (1985) idea of ‘landscape as text’, by acknowledging how landscapes are sophisticated cultural constructions which “produce and sustain social meaning” (p96). Intrinsically, they suggest that landscapes demonstrate how culture is politically contested, through the process of domination, hegemony and resistance. In transposing their arguments to deathscapes, cemeteries can be thought as microcosms of past societies, whereby the design and layout of the space reflects past values and power relations, through forming an ‘environment of thought’ (Moscovici, 1984). This ‘environment of thought’ shapes our perceptions and conceptions of a landscape through historically and culturally shifting the reality of past societies into somewhat social constructions of what people may refer to as ‘heritage’. As ‘heritage’ may be defined as the accumulation of people’s memories and interpretations of society (Till, 1999), layers of meanings are transcribed onto particular spaces. In this sense, given the numerous attached meanings of cemeteries, deathscapes are ‘palimpsests’ (Derrida, 1998) in so far as they conserve traces of past societies, whilst being receptive to new meanings. Past power relations enable layers of meanings to be attached to deathscapes, through the design and purpose of them inherently reflecting the values and beliefs of past societies, making THCP not only a microcosm of past societies, but also a palimpsest.

Background to THCP and Methodology

Opened in 1841 by the eleven wealthy directors of The City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery Company, THCP completed the ‘Magnificent Seven’ (Meller,1981) private cemeteries of London. It was created in order to relieve pressure of St Dunstan’s, Stepney and St Leonard’s, Bromley-by-Bow small parish churchyards, as the changing nature of work (in the wake of the Industrial Revolution), and the outbreak of cholera, caused demand for final resting places in London to outweigh supply. In fact, the Sanitary Report (1842:p32) empirically supports this by arguing that “on space of ground which do not exceed 203 acres, closely surrounded by the abodes of the living,… 20,000 adults and nearly 30,000 youths and children are every year imperfectly interred”. Whilst this, combined with the fear of body snatching, increased demand for burial sites outside of London (Bradbury, 1999:14), it was not until George Frederick Carden, inspired by the Père Lachaise cemetery, lobbied the Government into encouraging the establishment of them. In turn, THCP, (a garden cemetery, with curving pathways – Figure 1) proved to be a popular burial sites with 247,000 internments by 1889 (BBC, 2014). However, by the twentieth century, especially after 1945, the cemetery suffered from problems of overcrowding and neglect, so that eventually in 1966, the GLC purchased the land to create an ‘open’ space to which the public had access.

Plan of THCP
Figure 1: Plan of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

As THCP lies 5 minutes’ walk South East of Mile End tube station (Figure 2), many use the park today for leisure or commuting purposes. For me, it is the latter, with the place comprising a large proportion of my journey into central London. Thus, I selected a participant observation methodology to complement academic literature on deathscapes. This is because, I had already been exposed to the failing of contemporary users in realising the significance of the place to past residents of Tower Hamlets, as I used the space for the last two years in a way it was not intended for. Furthermore, it provided me a way to better understand the cultural implications of past power relations as I was able to credit my own interpretations, for I understood the park within its local setting (Bernard, 1994). In recognising the limitations of the methodology, with regards to human biases surrounding interpretive frames (see Schensul et al., 1999), I proposed to engage with the cemetery through archives, in order to back up claims from my participant observation. However, due to a fire, much of the archival data on the internments of THCP was destroyed.

THCP google map
Figure 2: Location of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Creation: Class relations

Ash Wood memorial
Photo 1: A typical memorial representing wealth in Ash Wood

Cemeteries have been characterised as inherently ‘hierarchical landscapes’ (Lequeur, 1993; Nash, 2000), as memorialisation provides an opportunity to express class, wealth, and status (Cannadine, 1981; Lequeur, 1993; Nash, 2000) through the choice of size and shape of gravestone. This interpretation emphasises cemeteries as microcosms of past societies, as through the stratified costs of burials, societies social inequalities are reflected. Intrinsically, death is not a leveller of class and social status (Kong, 1999:p7) as the treatment of bodies and memorialisation was a direct result of your wealth and status in a capitalist society. This is because capitalism, which by definition builds upon structures of power (Wood, 2003:p120), provided the middle classes with the means to demonstrate and maintain social authority by erecting grandiose memorials in the act of remembrance (Mytum, 1989; Nash, 2000). The poor and wealthy could expect very different death rituals, with those unable to buy a single plot being “unceremoniously dumped into a communal grave-pit on the edge of the graveyard” (Bradbury, 1999:9), where several persons, entirely unrelated to each other, could be buried together in just a few weeks. Indeed, the associating link of the ‘other’ and working class in the East End, led to 60% of the burials in THCP being in public graves, causing demand to outstrip supply (Strange, 2005:p145). As a solution, ‘graveyard churls’ often contestably re-opened old public graves, even though it was viewed as “deeply offensive to working-class people” as it “made a mockery of the grave as a ‘last resting place’” (Porcupine (1892) in Strange, 2005:145). In effect, the attitude towards bodies interred in public graves reinforced the class distinctions of the time, as it portrayed the poor as undeserving of respect, so that their burials became about yielding “a tidy profit” (Lacquer, 1993:192), whilst respect was saved for those who could pay.

Linden Graves
Photo 2: Upper Middle Class memorials in Linden Graves

Furthermore, the company’s regulation of memorialisation also demonstrates the cemetery as a hierarchical landscape, as it was prohibited to erect gravestones upon public graves. Therefore, the use of symbols in death became an indicator of status and wealth in a capitalist society (Jalland, 1996), as only certain classes were able, and also could afford gravestones or memorials. The visual culture in the act of remembrance became more important that the act itself (Llewellyn, 1991), as it became a way of maintaining the status and wealth of the dead in society (Gillis, 1997). Photos 1-4 demonstrate the differences in memorial symbols in different parts of the park, because the size and shape of the gravestone corresponds to a relative price of the plot, which we can use as a kind of proxy for class and social status of those interred there. It is in this way that the location, as well as the size and shape of memorial develops layers of meanings from past class relations, especially as THCP is now not primarily a cemetery.

Cantwell Fields and The Dello
Photo 3: Lower Middle Class memorials in The Dello; Photo 4: Working class memorials in Cantwell Fields

Creation: Gender Politics

In addition to class, we must also regard the ways in which the production of landscapes are associated with society’s [gendered] order (Lefebvre, 1974). Hartig and Dunn (1998) argue that it is only through engaging in the gendered iconography of deathscapes that we gain a unique angle into the realm of gendered spaces, through destabilizing the apparent naturalness of our spatial order. To develop upon this, we must recognise the ways in which space, whether intentionally or unintentionally, embodies inscriptions of masculinity and femininity within the creation of them (Ferguson and Turnbull, 1996). However given “the often silent and hidden operation of gender” (Scott, 1988:p7), the consequences arising from the ways in which gender and order are construed, within codified spaces, often remain undetected but relevant in considering contestations of space within them. As such, the gendered appearance of space in a cemetery may conflict with the gendered notions of activities with which it was created for.

If we consider THCP as being created with the representation of gender of past societies embedded into it, the argument of landscapes being able to produce and sustain social meaning of a hegemonic class is embodied here. This is through the ways in which Victorian gendered domesticity becomes a tangible feature within the design of the deathscape and the activities which takes place within it. In effect, THCP is a “tacitly gendered space” (Ferguson and Turnbull, 1996;p1), where the design makes it implicitly masculine, as Figure 1 shows it to be “one that is planned, controlled, disciplined, orderly” (Ferguson and Turnball, 1996:p1). The role of femininity only seems to enter THCP in a kind of supportive manner, whereby the use of feminine figures in memorials or gravestones reaffirmed how the act of remembrance, was considered to be inherently feminine, through it being construed as emotional (Bradbury, 2001:p218). Furthermore, as the act of grief was likened to a disease (Lindemann, 1944), or the ailing next of kin (Parkes, 1964, 1975), the ways in which gender played out within THCP, became inherently hierarchical. Femininity within the space represented ‘pathological grief’ (Lindemann, 1944; Volkan, 1970), or a failure to move on, compared to masculinity representing restraint and discipline, reflected within the design of the deathscape. Indeed then, by recognising how society’s gendered order is embedded into the creation of a cemetery, we can further develop how deathscapes are microcosms of past societies.

Creation: Ideas Surrounding ‘Nations’

Furthermore, deathscapes uncover the social constructedness of a particular ‘nation’ (Jackson and Penrose, 1993) as “the central layers of our community’s value system – traditions and axioms” (Zelinsky, 1994:p29) are embedded in the creation of them. This is through memorialisation offering a way for ‘nations’, comprising of ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson, 1983), to legitimise itself due to the presence of death implying the endurance of them in times of uncertainty. The purpose of a deathscape, then, is to represent the deeply shared attitudes and values of these communities, to cement the collective identity of the soul of a nation (Jackson and Vergara, 1989). Once recognising this, a cemetery becomes a space in which the perceptions and conceptions of who, or what, is remembered shapes the social constructedness of the future ‘nation’. It is in this way that deathscapes may be intrinsically able to resurrect personal, as well as, collective memories of the ‘citizens’ with which the ‘nation’ identifies with. As such, cemeteries primarily exist to voice membership of this specific social group (Mackay, 1989; Mytum, 1993, 1994).

Adopting similar culturally analytical tools as Mytum (1994), deathscapes reveal a commitment to a particular ‘nation’ through the internment and memorialisation of similar and belonging members. It is religion which reinforces the nation as being socially constructed (van der Veer and Lehmann, 1999) through sacred landscapes being “claimed, owned and operated by people advancing specific interests” (Chidester and Linethal, 1995:p15). In recognising the politics of sacred spaces (including consecrated grounds), deathscapes reflect the divergences in particular ‘nations’ in who belongs and those that don’t (Kong and Yeoh, 2003:p17-19). Perhaps this invites us to question the presence of certain social groups and absences of others in THCP and it does not take us long to identify the absences of other religions. This is best illustrated by the lack of Jewish memorials, often present in other cemeteries located in areas with less of a Jewish community (see photos 5-7). Instead, despite the presence of Jews in the East End (see Lipman, 1954) the creation of THCP has chosen to exclude this particular group in order to highlight the membership of other groups in belonging to the ‘nation’. As such, THCP, reflects past social constructions of the future ‘nation’ in remembering those which belonged and excluding others.

Photos 5-7 Jewish memorials in Newington Cemetery, Edinburgh
Photos 5-7 Jewish memorials in Newington Cemetery, Edinburgh

Maintenance: Class Relations

With many disused deathscapes now classified as greenspaces, maintenance can exacerbate the inherently hierarchical system of class embedded into them during creation. This is because converting them reflects or even perpetuates the ideas and projects from the 1880s that involved transforming disused burial grounds and cemeteries in East London into gardens and playgrounds. The projects, originating within philanthropic organisations, such as the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association, aimed to provide a space for the “improvement of the moral sentiments and general taste of… the great masses of societies” (Loudon, 1981:p1), in order for them to engage in ‘rational recreation’ (Dunk and Rugg, 1994). In turn, the remaking of urban space, by creating green spaces or ‘healtheries’ (Brown, 2013) became synonymous with top-down ‘social improvement’ (Osbourne and Rose, 1993). This links the changing usage of cemeteries, to political solutions to problems (e.g. Health) arising from the presence of poverty in specific places, such as the East End (Foucault, 1984). Given the continuing association of space and poverty within Tower Hamlets, the change of use of THCP can be viewed as a political solution to such problems, which without intending to, exacerbates the inherently hierarchical system of class within the deathscape.

Also, as the maintenance of the space understands itself as a park, rather than a deathscape, we absently walk past gravestones, without realising that the bodies interred here, were fortunate enough to be part of a class which could pay to be remembered. In failing to realise, we disregard those in THCPs unmarked public grave, in such a way as to continue past class relations in death. I proposed to identify those within the public grave, as to contrast death rituals associated to each class, and yet a fire destroyed the records regarding those interred there. Perhaps this is a reflection of the reliance society has on institutions (i.e. those in charge of THCP burial registers) to maintain, and construct societal cultural memory (DiMaggio, 1997:p267), whereby the aims and operations of these, inadvertently yet naturally, reinforce past class relations in the meanings attached to the deathscape, in its maintenance.

Maintenance: Gender Politics

Feminine Acts of Remembrance
Photo 8: Reflecting the feminine acts of remembrance

In addition to class, the association of the production of landscapes to past society’s [gendered] order leaves permanent implications for the maintenance of the cemetery park. The intimate relationship between burial grounds and leisure pursuits suggest that as deathscapes are, and remain, embedded into the surrounding community and its daily life (Dunk and Rugg, 1994), any arising contestations of space echo contemporary and historical politics. In other words, as THCP is now associated with leisure rather than remembrance, it causes the space, within its maintenance, to reflect as well as exacerbate gender politics of past societies. Consequently, it is these contemporary contestations that leaves THCP remaining as a “tacitly gendered space” (Ferguson and Turnball, 1996:p1). This denotes the ways in which the term ‘cemetery park’ induces complex contestations of space in regards to gender (Morris, 1997). The term ‘cemetery’ echoes how past societies construed the deathscape as inherently feminine, whilst the term ‘park’ evokes masculinity, through the distinction it creates between work and leisure. By comparing my ‘masculine’ use of the park to the feminine activity of laying down flowers in photo 8, the contemporary gendered contestations of space originates in past gender politics, in so far as remembrance is a contemporary side-lined activity. Perhaps, this is a continuation of past societies overlooking the feminine emotions of grief, by distracting the eyes with more masculine and acceptable activities. Furthermore, contemporary activities, which take place within the park, are remnants of past constructions of those deemed acceptable (Dunk and Rugg, 1994). Subsequently, the layers of meanings we attach to the activities are drawn from past perceptions of gender in so far as past societies dictate the activities performed in the maintenance of the park.

Maintenance: Ideas Surrounding “Nations”

Furthermore, the recognition of deathscapes shaping the social constructedness of future ‘nations’, is realised within the maintenance of the space. Any attempts to study deathscapes in context of today without acknowledging past constructions of the ‘nation’, fails to accept culture as politically contested or that our perceptions and conceptions are socially constructed reality. Indeed, memorials and remembrance are able to not only evoke personal memories of sentiment, but also collective memories of the ‘nation’, so that memorials have a “social purpose” (Mayo, 1988:p64). This implies that the act of remembrance performs a public service, as it reinforces the values and aims of the ‘nation’ in selecting and reflecting what is chosen to remember. This is despite a ‘nations’ history simultaneously being enhanced and reinterpreted by members of the same society, as deathscapes create an ‘environment of thought’ conjuring and sustaining a collective memory of the permanence of the ‘nation’ itself.

The case in point is developed best in reference to war memorials, which bestow honour, from the ‘nation’ to those who fought for its endurance. Rather than being “polite gestures in the landscapes” (Mayo, 1988:p70), war memorials are constructed with the dominant ideology of past societies through the very association of the glory of war with the remembrance of it. In recognising this, war memorials provide a space for patriotism or loyalty to the ‘nation’ to manifest itself into more than a word or feeling, but to embody a space (Tuan, 1977). THCP particularly exhibits this, in reference to the only official act of remembrance being centred on the war memorial, every 11th November. The remembrance itself is simple in resting crosses with poppies near to the memorial and yet the commemoration is felt necessary to not only honour the fallen, but also to enhance the collective memory of the ‘nation’ through past social constructions.

THCP War Memorial
Photo 9: THCP war memorial located at the entrance


This case study of THCP, has demonstrated how deathscapes can be viewed as microcosms of past societies, through past power relations shaping the contemporary meanings we attach to them. In recognising how landscapes are sophisticated cultural constructions (Cosgrove and Jackson, 1987), these meanings become layered upon each other due to the ‘environment of thought’ (Moscovinci, 1984) of deathscapes being formed from the accumulation of people’s memories and interpretations of society (Till, 1999). In this sense, deathscapes are ‘palimpsests’ as they conserve traces of past societies, whilst being receptive to new layers of meanings. Having used THCP for the past two years as part of my journey into central London, I chose to use a participant observation methodology to complement the surrounding academic literature of deathscape, as I was able to understand the park within its local setting. The past conceptions of class relations, gender politics and the ideas surrounding “nations” demonstrate the ways in which the meanings attached to deathscapes originate from embedded past power relations during their creation and maintenance. During creation, cemeteries are designed to be inherently hierarchical landscapes, whereby the size, shape and location of gravestones embed past class relations into the deathscape. Combining this with the top-down change of use of space, we only remember those who could afford grandiose memorials and hence past class relations are exacerbated in the maintenance of the park. Past gender politics are embedded during creation, through the contestations between the masculine, orderly design of the space, and the emotional/feminine acts of remembrance. The maintenance of the park continues with these gendered contestations, by past societies dictating the acceptable activities to perform within the space. Furthermore, cemeteries reflect past ideas surrounding ‘nations’, by including/excluding members of society, depending on whether they were considered to be part of the ‘nation’. The selection of what is chosen to be remembered forms a collective memory of ‘nations’, which is socially constructed from past societies and is reflected in the maintenance in regards to war memorials. Consequently, this case study has shown that the meanings we attach to the deathscapes are direct results of the maintenance sustaining the past power relations embedded during the creation of them and as such, today’s conceptions of class relations, gender politics and ideas surrounding a nation will ultimately become another layer in the meanings attached to deathscapes.


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