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Churchyard Vandalism

There are three main types of vandalism of monuments:

Breakage and uprooting of headstones by church people
Breakage and defacing of headstones by young people
Clearing of the land for development

The former never makes headlines in the local newspapers, the next always does! The third may.

Many churches have decided to clear the graveyards to make them easier to maintain. After all, it is so much easier to mow the grass and keep down weeds without all those unsightly gravestones being in the way! Please excuse my sarcasm, but to me this is just as much vandalism as a stone being uprooted, broken, or defaced with graffiti by a gang of youths!

A headstone is there to permanently mark the position of someone buried at the spot. In the adjacent grave would almost certainly lie the remains of a relative. But as soon as headstones are removed from their original positions, that relationship between the gravestones is lost forever. Some churches decide to simply prop the headstones against a boundary wall, but there is rarely enough space for all of them, and so the others are destroyed, sold as paving slabs, or even used as paving slabs or steps around the church itself.

This photograph is taken beside St. Mary's Church at Newark, Nottinghamshire.

Every single headstone has been removed from its natural position in the churchyard, which is now a tidy and picturesque garden with shrubs and flower beds.....

..... except that many headstones have been used to totally pave the area all around the church itself. Many of these stones have been cut to make them fit, and there is even an area of tarmacadam covering some of the broken headstones because they have now become *too* damaged.

The inscriptions can no longer be read on the majority of these stones, and erosion is accelerated by having them laid flat.


Another area of Newark churchyard. Some stones lie broken in the corner of the plot, others are propped against the boundary wall, and lots are simply laid flat on the ground.

All of the stones are gradually becoming overgrown with vegetation. The slate stones fare the best, but those of limestone and sandstone are becoming even more eroded.

There are dozens of my family's graves here at Newark. Somewhere. Not one headstone is identifiable.

Churchyards do not of course have to be cleared to keep them  tidy and well maintained. This photo shows a small part of the area beside Epperstone Church, Nottinghamshire (The Neep plot, taken from at the top of the tower). This churchyard is beautifully maintained, with the grass cut, no sign of weeds or overgrowing vegetation. It is a pleasure to see and visit.

If you have any pictures of vandalism, do let me have a copy, and I will include them here.



I sometimes receive letters from people asking what they can do when faced with churchyard vandalism, either before or after the event.

"I feel I should write back pointing out the tragedy of what they have done - but would like to be sure I have all my arguments correctly mustered. Like to help me? You know a lot more about this than I do, so assistance with which points to make etc would be welcome."


1. It is sacrilidge! emotive I know.... but how else would you describe it?

2. It is worse than vandalism... because it is "officially" sanctioned.

Technically speaking:

1. The stones will wear so very much more quickly if they are subjected to physical abrasion in addition to normal weathering.

2. The normal weathering process is accelerated by having the stones flat on the ground. Water *stands* on flat stones. In icy weather, the water *in* the surface of the stone freezes and literally breaks the stone open by internal pressure as it expands. This effect does happen on upright stones too, but much less, as the water runs off.

Historically speaking:

1. Stones should be *preserved* rather than removed or subjected to increased degradation.

2. Even stones which appear to be useless as records due to their inscriptions having been weathered away can be read under certain conditions and using specialist techniques. There is no excuse for removing even the apparently poor ones.

3. Stones should be preserved in their *original* positions, because they have a *relationship* to each other. It is quite common to see several stones of the same family adjacent to each other, and usually in date order. Even an undecypherable one between two other family stones has importance in this resepect. However, it is not at all uncommon for adjacent stones even bearing different surnames to be of the same family group. For example, a daughter marries, and she and her husband are buried alongside her parents and siblings. She may have a different surname, but the relative positions of the stones are still very important in establishing potential family relationships. Once the stones have been moved, this relationship is lost forever. There is a tendency when moving stones... even to prop them up against a boundary wall, to select the "pretty" ones, and then use the large, more "paving slab" looking ones for pathways.

4. Headstones are an important part of the country's heritage. They are not something to think of as simply slabs useful for patios and pathways. If Shakespeare's gravestone was to be made into a paving slab what would you think? So what difference historically is the stone of John Smith from the same period... or any other period for that matter.

5. The graveyard / cemetery as a *whole* entity is important. It is not simply a collection of individual stones, scattered in a miscellaneous pattern on a piece of land.

6. A headstone marks the precise spot that a person was buried. This is incredibly important to preserve. The headstone is there to commemorate someone's *life* as well as to mark the place where he or she was buried.

7. It is sometimes stated that no-one ever visits the grave, and therefore its purpose has outlived its life. After all, the relatives are no longer alive, and no-one puts flowers there or tends it any longer. This is extremely poor logic indeed! With the great increase in interest in family history, more and more people are visiting the graves of ancestors. It is very disappointing and extremely upsetting to find that a gravestone has been removed. But to find that a decision has been made by some unrelated and uncaring person purely to make it easier to keep the burial place "tidy" and easier to maintain, and then use the headstone as a paving slab makes the situation even worse! Such an action is frankly unforgivable!

Preservation and not destruction.

We should be striving to preserve our heritage rather than destroy it. What would we think of our ancestors if they had removed Stonehenge and used the stones as building blocks for a wall or a causeway. They would make extremely good stones for a bridge construction. Of course, these stones of Stonehenge are much more important, after all, they are thousands of years old.

But a well preserved headstone in a graveyard will also become thousands of years old! We have a responsibility to future generations to make moves to positively preserve and restore them *now*. Not to destroy them because it makes it easier to mow the grass!

The Vandalism Gallery

Below, are some of the horror stories.

St John's Church, ABERGAVENNY, Monmouthshire.

"They have 'constructed' a 'Wedding Photography Area' (for want of a better description) beside the church which consists of a large part of the churchyard which has been flattened and the beautiful old gravestones broken up for paving and to function as coping stones on top of the wall. I was horrified!"

Saint Clements Churchyard in Chorlton-cum-Hardy.

"This churchyard was surveyed in 1975 prior to being cleared to create an 'open space' [sic!!!]. I wrote to them recently to see what happened to my ancestors headstone, which had three generations inscribed on it. The jolly reply came that:

"You will be pleased to know that [they] are still to be seen. The vast majority of the memorials were flatstones, and these have been rearranged to form the surface of a pathway through the churchyard. The inscriptions on these stones are still legible."

It's enough to make one weep! "

Not in England...... but one I couldn't resist including:

An item from The New York Times, Sunday, November 2, 1997, page 33, "Metropolitan Diary" By Ron Alexander:

An older friend, recently returned from her home town in North Carolina, says they've spruced up the churchyard cemetery since her last visit several years back. "Lots of new greenery," she said. "And families are together now."

"Together?" I asked, puzzled.

"Well, years ago they never much worried where they buried someone because everyone was a neighbor anyhow. They'd just dig a grave wherever it seemed to balance things. But they've redone it so people are with their children and grandchildren, instead of scattered all over."

"You mean they exhumed all those people and reburied them?"

"Oh no," she said. "They just moved the headstones. Everyone agrees it looks so much nicer."

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