In its position just beyond Fishergate, on the way to the University of York, the twenty-four acre York Cemetery is a part of the city most of you will have rarely visited. It houses approximately 28,000 graves, and a handful of Grade II listed buildings and monuments, including the chapel, which was designed (as were the grounds) by James Pigott Pritchett.
The cemetery was founded in 1837, in an effort to provide a complete and dedicated burial ground for residents from all walks of life, as opposed to the already very full local parishes and graveyards. In order to ensure that the new cemetery would be used to its full potential, all other non-conformist graveyards were closed, and York Cemetery expanded exponentially to its current size, by purchasing all adjoining land.
This boom continued until the 1960s, and with the cemetery full, and therefore no more money coming into the business, it fell into disrepair. In 1984, the roof of the chapel fell in, prompting the founding of York Cemetery Trust. Many negotiations over a two year struggle with the Crown Commissioners led to the Trust having complete control over the cemetery, including the burial business, (such as it was), and the use of the site for educational purposes.
Today, a Lottery-funded initiative is in place at the cemetery for ‘conservation, education and informal recreation within a protected environment’. Trustees, staff, friends and volunteers all work to support the site in its life as a working community facility and an educational support for the local area.
The Trust also offers a genealogy service, charting the lives and significance of the 28,000 buried in the cemetery. It attempts, by making important materials and documents available for study, to collect and store information on the genealogies, conditions and lifestyles of the inhabitants of York through the ages. The intention is to create a museum to display their findings.
York Cemetery is also a very pleasant area to walk in. It is quiet, and a contemplative setting, and the restored Grade II listed chapel, designed by Pritchett in the late neo-classical design, is a joy to behold. Based on the temple of Erectheus in Athens, and seventeen people were interred in the catacombs (A very expensive burial, in the early nineteenth century). The grounds are very pretty, especially considering the cemetery’s proximity to the city centre. They are maintained to a high standard. The Trust arranges a variety of walks and guides, and regularly display some of the genealogical materials they have found.
So, if you have a desire to research your ancestors, or just fancy a quiet hour away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, take a walk to Cemetery Road, and see what you find when you get there.