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Urban ecosystems


Old cemeteries can sometimes be relatively undisturbed pockets of woodland, grassland and other habitats in otherwise heavily built-up areas.

Most burials up until the mid-17th Century took place in parish churchyards (land owned by the church and usually situated within the boundary of a church). However, with the rapid increase in population numbers in the urban areas (see Introduction), urban churchyards were quickly becoming full up leading to terrible hygiene problems. Bodies were not buried deeply enough or were left out to rot, soil and water courses became contaminated and disease spread. Something had to be done!

Sir Christopher Wren and John Evelyn were amongst a group of eminent people who helped to revive the ancient Roman idea of putting burial grounds on the outskirts of the town and by the late 18th century and early 19th century a number of private companies had taken up this idea creating new suburban burial sites with a view to making a profit from the burying of the dead. For example a ring of cemeteries, developed around London each serving different parts of the City. Their success largely depended on their ability to attract the wealthy and so many of the parks were beautifully designed, landscaped and planted.

Abney Park cemetery

Abney Park cemetery, London -
overgrown, but a haven for wildlife

Abney Park, opened in 1840, was laid out with over 2500 trees rivalling the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew as a spectacle.The huge cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey was so important that it had its own railway line which brought whole funeral corteges from Waterloo right into the Cemetery. The cemeteries not only provided desirable burial plots but quickly became popular places for gentle recreation. Eventually acts of parliament passed in the mid 19th century allowed for the provision of publicly funded cemeteries as an alternative to the profit making private cemeteries.

Many of the private companies were concerned largely with profits for their share holders and did not set aside money for long term maintenance. By the mid 1960s many had reached a state of crisis and were effectively abandoned, becoming a huge liability for those trying to care for them in the 21st century.

However, these sites are of great importance not only for their historical and social interest but as a very important contribution to the green space in urban areas. Many offer a wide variety of wildlife habitats and have a high biodiversity. They can provide important sites for education about the environment and recreation.

Case study: Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park is one of the largest areas of woodland in east London. This case study follows the history of the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and shows how today it has become a valuable community asset.

Tower Hamlets cemetery

A flower-rich meadow formed in one
of the areas cleared of graves after 1967

A brief history

How is the Cemetery managed today?

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