Obscured by trees and known only to dog walkers, headstones stand in stacks of five, six, seven, flanking the perimeter with carved odes to long-dead loved ones. This is Louth Old Cemetery, or St Mary’s Old Cemetery; depending on who you ask. The Lincolnshire Market town has a larger, active, late Victorian cemetery on its outskirts, with a crematorium and garden of rest within a short driving distance, so the tiny old burial ground often gets overlooked. Nestled between a small car park and a bridge over the river Lud, sits an old, sparse burial ground, dating back to the 13th Century.
It is generally regarded that this old cemetery was attached to the long-demolished St Mary’s church, which was first mentioned in writings in 1146 ‘when a papal charter confirmed the rights of a cathedral canon to ‘Louth church with its appendages.’’ Before this, it is believed that a simple, wooden place of worship existed on the site for many years before the Norman conquest. However, the stone church, frequently referenced in early mentions of the site, was completed in 1247.
By the 15thcentury, the church was long out of use and by the early 16thcentury, parts of the remaining structure were being used as a school. During this period, the new school proved to have little success; being too cold, damp and ‘bleak’ for use, especially in the winter. After only 5 years as a schoolhouse, a structure was erected elsewhere and the old church was in need of a use once again. Over the following centuries, the church was repurposed as a poorhouse and a cattle shed – and by the 18thcentury, all that remained was the chapel!
Despite the church falling into disuse and disrepair, the graveyard itself was used consistently for burials until the middle of the 19thcentury. In 1724, the graveyard was recorded as being an acre in size, which is relatively small for such a busy town. Indeed, between 1770 and 1854, St Mary’s was the only burial ground within the parish.
In 1854, a new 10-acre cemetery was established a little further from the town centre to ease the overcrowding of the small site. Subsequently, St Mary’s was closed for burials, and all new interments were redirected to the modern cemetery with its two mortuary chapels and rather more peaceful appearance.
In the 20thcentury, with the cemetery in disuse, the local authorities chose to remove all headstones and monuments, stacking them around the site in rows. This made the site far easier to mow and maintain as a public space, but has caused controversy with locals and visitors ever since. The bloggers and cemetery enthusiasts of MartinNicholson.com commented that they –
‘never cease to be amazed at the disrespectful way some communities treat the deceased!’
Much as I understand the disgust many visitors feel when visiting a ‘disassembled’ cemetery, St Mary’s is merely a relic among thousands of other forgotten burial grounds. For centuries, cultures across the globe disinter, repurpose, destroy and clear grave sites. Some for cultural reasons, such as for cleaning and adoration of a loved one (Indonesia’s ‘Cleaning of the Corpses’ festival for example), others for addressing issues with overcrowding. Cemeteries are lost, built over and unearthed regularly within the UK – such as the 42,000 skeletons found and removed during the HS2 railway expansion project. Death and the idea of a permeant resting place will always be a controversial subject for which there really is no perfect answer. So, I present St Mary’s as it is.
In the 1950s, it was a thoroughfare for schoolchildren of the local grammar school on cross-country running excursions. Today, it continues to be maintained in a basic way, in that the grass is mown and dog walkers occasionally clean up after their furry friends. However, for the most part, it has little use and little importance or appreciation in modern Louth town life.
While the detailed history and records of St Mary’s are long lost, there is still appreciation to be found in its bizarre setup. In similar small, unused cemeteries, headstones were removed and often broken up for use as rubble or even as driveway gravel. While I can’t say I support the clearing and stacking of St Mary’s headstones, I am, at the very least, grateful for their presence.
[Book] A History of Louth – Dr Richard Gurnham. Phillimore. 2007.