Not just a burial place

Jewish burial customs require that the deceased be interred as soon as possible after death.   Taking this into account, the two likely locations for my great-grandfather’s grave were Liverpool and Sheffield.  Grimsby was a remote possibility due to the presence of siblings and father living there.

Michael Saltman had mentioned that by 2011, the Jewish community in Grimsby had shrunk to three people.   To paraphrase Avrom, the most vital institution of this once thriving community was now its cemetery, the synagogue having ceased to function.

I was impressed to read that the North East Lincolnshire Archives has more than two kilometres of shelving filled with 12,000 boxes of records dating from the 13th century.  If Israel had been buried in Grimsby, I figured that he would show up in these records.  He didn’t.

That left Sheffield and Liverpool.

I had stumbled across a blog devoted to the conservation of Walkley Cemetery in Sheffield.  I had known of a Jewish cemetery in that vicinity and contacted the blog author, Hugh, for more information.

While Walkley Cemetery is a Church of England Burial Ground, there is a small Jewish cemetery adjacent which is a separate entity.  Both cemeteries opened in 1880.  But Israel had died in 1876 so I could cross that one off my list.

Sheffield City Council

Bowden Street Cemetery (Sheffield City Council)

Hugh had copied a link to an earlier Jewish burial ground in Bowden Street.  According to the source of information on this link – one Neville Ballin, a Sheffield local writing in August 1999 – Bowden Street Cemetery opened in 1831 and closed in 1880.  In 1975 Sheffield City Council bought the Bowden Street Cemetery and 51 remains were re-interred in that year at the Sheffield Jewish Congregation Cemetery at Ecclesfield.  Most of the Bowden Street graves appeared to have been unmarked, so my expectations were low.

More recent information on the JCR-UK website inferred that Bowden Street Cemetery might have closed in 1874.  In that case, I could cross this cemetery off my list as well.  The remaining working Jewish cemetery in 1876 was at Ecclesfield, the oldest section having been acquired in 1872.

JCR-UK identifies 1,390 burials having occurred at the Jewish Community Cemetery at Ecclesfield between 1874 and 1997.  Of these, only a handful of names are obtainable online and none matches my great-grandfather.

I shall digress slightly here.  Mr Ballin had previously caught my eye in connection with a book he had written, “The early days of Sheffield Jewry”.  The book includes a list of all Jews extracted from Sheffield directories between 1852 and 1900.  A period during which my ancestors lived there.

I knew that Sheffield Council held a copy of this book, but I wanted my own.  The market for Mr Ballin’s book must have been thin, as none was for sale anywhere.  Nor was there a copy in any library close to home.

Cap in hand, I asked the Council if they would scan the book – it was only 64 pages long – and email it to me.  I would, of course, pay for any costs.

If the market for the Ballin book was thin, then so were the prospects of my request being met.  My correspondent advised that due to United Kingdom copyright law, I could be supplied with up to five percent or one chapter of the book.  I am still wondering how I was to select a particular five percent or book chapter, sight unseen.

Through a combination of perseverance and luck, I found a copy of the book at the Sheffield Jewish Congregation and Centre.  The woman who responded to my inquiry generously offered to check the book, as well as cemetery records, for mention of my ancestors.  They didn’t feature in either.

That left Liverpool.

Deane Road Cemetery was opened in 1837 and closed for regular burials in 1904.  It is the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Liverpool and was recently restored.

Despite the cemetery being operational during the relevant period, the project manager for the restoration, Saul Marks, said that there was no record of Israel having been buried at Deane Road.  He added that there was another Jewish cemetery active in Liverpool in the 1870’s at Green Lane.  However, a fire many years before had destroyed the burial registers for this cemetery and the surviving substitute comprised a list of existing upright tombstones made in 1979.

Was destruction of records by fire becoming a recurring theme in my search?

A colleague of Saul’s, Arnold Lewis, contacted me separately to say that Israel’s name did not appear in the Green Lane cemetery database.  The list did not include many headstones that had been overturned and their inscribed names unable to be recorded.  Israel’s headstone may have been one of those.  However, as the cemetery was now completely overgrown and access barred, no-one could do a headstone check to confirm.  Arnold’s view was that if Israel had remained Jewish and within the community then it was almost certain that he would have been buried there.

I did not need to muddy the waters by adding that Liverpool was one of two, possibly three, possible last resting places for my great-grandfather.

With my long distance forensic investigations having failed to identify a burial place for my great-grandfather, I was left pondering the future of cemeteries in modern urban life.  Did they have a role to play?

Increasing funeral costs, weather effects and greater societal mobility have seen a growing trend towards cremation.  Apart from the financial incentive – cremation offers huge savings compared to a conventional burial – this option also absolves family members of any responsibility for maintaining a grave site.  And more than one generation out, the likelihood of a surviving relative performing this role is fairly slim.

Will cremation, however, signal the death knell of cemeteries?  I don’t think so.  Or, at least, I hope not.

For as long as religion, culture and tradition prevail, so are physical memorials to people’s memories likely to continue. Cemeteries are where many cultures still prefer to lay their loved ones to rest, the grave being one of the last physical connections with the deceased’s existence.  This is also a place where those who remain behind can make a spiritual connection with their relative.

But burial places have a much wider appeal.

Their role as tourist destinations is well established: witness, for example, the Taj Mahal, the grave of Elvis Presley, the Pyramids.

bonaventure_cem – 160

A few years ago, I found myself at the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah.  This is the garden of “good and evil” referred to in John Berendt’s gothic tale of murder and magic, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

Rows of neatly laid out graves are compartmentalised according to faith, public achievement (or notoriety) and war service.  Some of the characters who featured in Berendt’s book are also buried there.  The grave  sites are interspersed with lush growth and set under a canopy of oak trees that drip with Spanish moss.  What better place to enjoy one’s lunch sandwiches and ponder the meaning of life than in this atmosphere-laden burial place?  I didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

Closer to home, Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney’s west is the largest burial ground in the southern hemisphere and one of the biggest in the world.  Its 283 hectare site is represented by 80 different religions and cultural groups, and has seen a million burials since it first opened in 1868.  Inhabitants include representation from Sydney’s business world, entertainers, politicians, equal rights campaigners, war heroes, underworld figures and the odd convict.  Rookwood’s grounds are worth a drive through, if for no other reason than to take in the sheer scale of the cemetery.

Cemeteries are important not only for the above-mentioned characteristics, but also as islands of tranquility in the midst of urban areas.

Newtown, close to the Sydney CBD, is one of my favourite places to visit.  Its centrepiece is King Street, the longest and most complete commercial precinct of the late Victorian and early Federation period in Australia, and listed on the Register of the National Estate.  The colonnade of buildings which line King Street house a variety of restaurants, cafe’s, pubs, bookshops, entertainment venues and antique dealers.  There is a constant hum of activity on King Street and at times, it can be overwhelming.


Just one block back are the 19th century remains of the Camperdown cemetery.  Meandering amongst the graves, often with the birds as one’s only companion, it’s hard to believe that you are in the inner city.

Not having found the grave of my great grandfather was not the disappointment I thought it would be.  It was more reflective of the reality that, over time, some things survive and others don’t.

And for those that do survive, their legacy is there for future generations to appreciate, interpret, value and enjoy.  For there is no need to have a personal tie to a place in order to connect with it on another level.


8 thoughts on “Not just a burial place

  1. Yes cemeteries are a wonderful place for quiet reflection. Especially old ones where the years on headstone can take you back hundreds of years. There are though options to bury a loved one (or sometimes not loved one). A small plot to bury the cremated remains including a headstone (granted a bit smaller) is a possibility and may be part of a solution of ever decreasing burial space.

  2. Pingback: In another life | Attempting zero waste lifestyle in a military household

  3. Pingback: An absence explained? | In search of Harris

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