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Should graveyard wind chimes and plastic displays be banned?

  • 9 February 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Colchester cemetery
One section of Colchester cemetery is dominated by shrine-like graves

A council-run graveyard is trying to stop the spread of wind chimes and plastic ornaments. But should you have the right to put whatever you want on your loved one's resting place?

A tree in a graveyard in Colchester, Essex, is at the centre of a bitter battle over how people are allowed to commemorate the dead.

On this tree hang hearts, mobiles, pendants and dozens and dozens of wind chimes. The surrounding patch of graveyard is full of plots - mostly for children - festooned with artificial flowers, plastic ornaments, teddy bears and solar lights.

Councils are moving to restrict wind chimes

In one national newspaper it was dubbed the "'Poundland' cemetery", referring to the discount chain, and the dispute has seen the council issue an ultimatum, giving grieving parents until 1 March to remove much of the adornments from graves and the surrounding area.

A cacophony of wind chimes disrupting Remembrance Day events prompted action to be taken, says Councillor Martin Hunt, deputy leader of Colchester Council and responsible for the graveyard.

"It became so overwhelming that we started to get complaints from people who wanted to mourn in quiet."

The new regulations ban wind chimes and other objects being hung in trees, but do allow objects to be placed on graves, but with a limit of two wind chimes and two solar lights. They represent a compromise, Cllr Hunt says.

"The people who put them there say they should be allowed to mourn in the way they want to, but they are stopping people from mourning."

Some of the features that have been used have gone too far, he says.

"Having a child's grave with a train set going around it seems to be over the top. If you have got lots and lots of solar lights on a grave that creates light pollution."

And it's not just in Essex that this battle is going on. Other councils are opting for strict graveyard rules.

North East Lincolnshire Council has put restrictions in the document that parents must sign before taking a plot in a new children's section.

The rules says no "pottery, glass or metal ware, plastic, bricks, blocks, wire mesh, wooden, concrete, iron or plastic fences are permitted unless manufactured expressly as a receptacle for flowers or incorporated in the memorial".

And there are church graveyards that go even further, not allowing any kind of artificial flowers.

But where did this trend for a profusion of grave memorabilia come from? And why does it upset some people?

People are accustomed to seeing neat rows of graves

"People need to make loss concrete," says sociologist professor Deborah Steinberg, author of Mourning Diana: Nation, Culture and the Performance of Grief. "They need to evoke the person they are missing. There are lots of different gestures that do that for people."

Contrary to what some might expect, the creation of these mini-shrines in graveyards goes back further than the death of Diana and the change in public grieving that period of mourning denoted, Prof Steinberg says. It is also possible to observe a cultural change in the shrines placed at road death sites.

"I've been to lots of graveyards where I've seen tons of memorabilia, plastic windmills and so on. The disapproval of it has a history about decorum and appropriate behaviour and the aesthetics of mourning."

There is an undercurrent of class conflict in the battles to restrict grave displays, suggests Tony Walter, professor of death studies at the University of Bath.

"Taste wars have broken out in the British cemetery, and these taste wars are to some extent class wars.

"It is generally different social classes who go for minimal grave inscriptions and flowers planted for minimal maintenance on the one hand, or who go for photos, teddy bears, wind chimes, plastic flowers, real flowers left in their cellophane wrappers etc, on the other hand."

For Marlon Sherman, who spends as much time as he can at the grave of his eight-year-old son in the Colchester cemetery, it is upsetting to hear his son's grave and the surrounding plots' ornaments dubbed "offensive or tacky".

The tree next to his son's grave has the highest concentration of wind chimes of any in the cemetery. He has liked the noise they make ever since first passing the spot.

"I took notice - it was a very warm place and it felt loved. That's where I wanted my son to be," says Mr Sherman, who has a tattoo of the date of his son's death on the inside of one wrist.

"I can't take my son down to the shop to buy him a comic or sweets or play with him. I've got to make the best of what I've got and that is a piece of stone. I talk to him. It makes me feel better."

The area which has the plastic windmills and the toy lorries and the profusion of flowers is one tiny part of a 50-acre plus site.

Colchester's cemetery was compared to Poundland by one critic

But the council has been convinced that it causes additional discomfort for other grieving families, and says a survey of plot owners proved this.

"The vast majority said they wanted them banned altogether," says Cllr Hunt. Instead there has been a compromise. "We have agonised over it."

Ultimately it is a battle over the parameters of free expression in perhaps the most sensitive public spaces we have.

Whatever the cultural shift that has led people to show their grief by adorning graves, it is what gives many people comfort.

"There is no right or wrong in all this," says Prof Walter. "But it means that cemetery and churchyard management requires great sensitivity and tact, trying to achieve in death a tolerance of others' tastes and a class harmony that we fail to achieve in life."