Your average grave is visited for an average of around 15 years. After that, neglect can leave it looking unloved and anonymous, creating exactly the opposite effect to the one intended. There are those who see a cemetery as a monument to the vanity of human wishes. I’m one of them. Remembrance all too quickly passes into amnesia. Forever in our hearts? Who did you say you were exactly?
An exception to this rule is a military cemetery. Military folk maintain a hold on the hearts of the living longer than everyday heroes who die in civvies. Make what you want of that.
In Europe a number of American war cemeteries have an adopt-a-grave scheme. Local citizens, hundreds of them, adopt the grave of a dead soldier. They bring flowers and keep it looking tended. There are even waiting lists. More here.
Some 65 years ago Mrs Arpots (91) adopted the grave of British soldier Leonard Raymond Allison at the British War Cemetery in Brunssum. Still she is in good contact with the soldier’s family in the UK. “The mother of the soldier in particular was very grateful that we maintained the grave of her son. For us it was the least we could do after having been liberated.”
Just like Mrs. Arpots people from Brunssum have adopted a grave immediately following the liberation. They not only looked after the graves but also continued staying in touch with the family of the deceased soldier. Mrs. Arpots: “The family found it consoling and assuring that we maintained those graves for them. Leonard was their beloved son or brother. We have seen them frequently, and then they stayed with us or we stayed with them. We also received baby clothes and toys from them. We always had a very special relationship. I really enjoyed looking after the grave and maintain our relationship with the family.”
In the UK, Darwen has an adopt-a-grave scheme for its war dead, each grave marked by its Portland stone headstone. At Sutton Veny Primary School near Warminster, Wiltshire, pupils tend the graves of New Zealand and Australian soldiers in the local churchyard.
In Buxton, Derbyshire, an adopt-a-grave initiative was launched in 2011:
Mrs Luton said: “We had an open day and had to approach people with this odd idea of tending the grave of a stranger. “Eighteen people said yes on the day and more have joined since. We let them walk through the churchyard and choose a grave which appealed to them. “I don’t know how they chose but nobody wanted the same grave, it was incredible. “Many have wonderful details on the stones and there are a lot of children, and a lot of people have chosen children’s graves.”
In the same civvy spirit, James Norris of DeadSocial has just launched an Adopt a Grave initiative at Brompton cemetery. The idea is to enable Londoners to commune with death and nature at the same time as tidying up a bit:
Many of us do not visit green spaces on a regular basis due to a not owning a property with a garden and the environmental conditions in which we live. Due to the nature of urban cities we rarely get to ‘work on the land’ or immerse ourselves in an area of natural beauty. By granting participants permission to tend a currently untended, historic grave we hope that the natural relationship between participants, nature and death is addressed and somewhat rekindled. We encourage those who adopt a grave to find out the story about the person whose grave they are tending.