Updated: 18 hours ago
Increasing numbers of visitors have flocked to South East London’s cemeteries seeking alternative green spaces through the covid lockdowns, representatives from Southwark and Lewisham councils have confirmed.
With Peckham Rye, Hilly Fields, and Honor Oak Park busier than ever, residents have taken to using their nearest cemeteries for everything from escaping cramped housing, to exercising, walking the dog, and even practising the clarinet. Whatever the motivation, it’s clear that these sites have become far more multifunctional than their original purpose as sites for mourning.
During the first lockdown, visitors increased so substantially that Lewisham council's bereavement services closed Brockley and Ladywell cemetery to the general public over social distancing concerns and reports that headstones were being damaged. One year on from the first national lockdown, entry to the cemetery is still officially restricted to people visiting graves and attending burials, with access restricted to the Brockley gate.
“It's a form of meditating” – Rachel Lloyd, 56
Local resident Rachel Lloyd, 56, has been visiting Brockley and Ladywell cemetery every day since the first lockdown, and uses her Instagram platform @rachelcoweylloyd to document her daily visits. Rachel describes her trips to the cemetery as “a form of meditating,” which gives her “time to breathe, and just look at things [whilst] not being with lots of other people.”
As the mental health charity MIND attest on their website, spending time outdoors can positively benefit our mental health by lifting our mood, reducing stressful or angry feelings, improving physical health and feeling more connected to our environment.
Whilst many residents have relished exploring the area’s vast Victorian cemeteries, others have been concerned and unsettled at the increased footfall.
“Cemeteries are supposed to be a designated place for people to express their grief.” – Sienna Mustafa, 25
In the Southwark council-run Nunhead cemetery, Peckham resident Sienna Mustafa, 25, worries that the cemetery has suffered for the council’s lack of visitor restrictions, in contrast to Lewisham council’s temporary closure of Brockley and Ladywell.
Sienna describes Nunhead cemetery as “a very different place” since the covid lockdowns began; now “overrun” with yuppies, yoga mums, and “people that would have previously occupied Blackbird Bakery.” “A lot of the people buried in the working part of the cemetery were either immigrants, or from non-English backgrounds,” Sienna explains, “It feels really poignant when there's a bunch of white middle-class people drinking and misusing the space around a bunch of Islamic graves. Cemeteries are supposed to be a designated place for people to express their grief.”
Sienna stopped visiting the cemetery after an incident in 2016 where she confronted a couple picnicking beside her father’s still-fresh grave. When Sienna returned to Nunhead cemetery in 2020, she found the problems with overcrowding and spatial misappropriation had gotten significantly worse.
For others, like Friends of Nunhead Cemetery founder Jeffrey Hart, Nunhead cemetery is not receiving enough visitors. Jeffrey is keen to encourage more residents from BAME backgrounds to visit, although he believes many are put off because of “different cultural attitudes towards death and commemoration.”
Whilst Jeffrey agrees that visitor numbers have “mushroomed”, he believes that returning visitors are steadily becoming more interested and asking more questions about the graveyard’s history.
“When visitors return, they want to know more about the cemetery,” he says. “How did this space get to be here? Why is there so much woodland?”
With Nunhead cemetery’s annual open days on pause until covid restrictions ease, a curious visitor might find themselves scrolling through YouTube in search of Nunhead cemetery’s mysterious backstory, occluded by its overstory. In a video posted on the South Siders' YouTube channel in January 2020, a narrator offers that, “You don’t know whether [Nunhead cemetery] is a woodland that is full of monuments, or whether it’s a cemetery that’s full of trees.”
It is this duality which has polarised South East London’s cemetery visitors and stoked the division and displacement expressed by many in posts on Facebook and Nextdoor. With no organised ‘visitor hours’ in sight for Southwark council run cemeteries, it is clear that many feel their grief has been perpetuated as they fight for the space to grieve through the pandemic.
You can share your thoughts on the increase in visitor numbers to cemeteries in the South East London area by completing this survey which will be shared with Lewisham and Southwark councils.