The Future of our Cemeteries – the debate continues.

May 26, 2011
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On Tuesday 24 May, The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks visited the Jewish Cemetery in Brady Street, where he led a short service to mark the occasion of its 250th anniversary, as reported in the East London Advertiser.

Opened in 1761  this pleasant, tree filled burial ground has survived the centuries and now forms a haven of quiet in a traffic-filled urban landscape. The final resting place of some of the founders of Anglo-Jewry, not least among them Nathan de Rothschild, founder of the Rothschild Bank.

it was the judicious burial in 1990 of his descendant,  Nathaniel, the third Baron Rothschild that prevented it being compulsorily purchased and lost forever, like the tragic demolition of the old Hambro cemetery at Hoxton

The future of Brady Street is now secure until 2090: but what then?  And what of other grounds across the country? Jewish Cemeteries at risk.

The questions we have to confront comprise the practical , the philosophical and, more contentiously, the political. We touch on these in our short history of the Bancroft Road (Maiden Lane) cemetery here and we are glad to report that, thanks to the efforts of Susie Clapham and others, this cemetery is now being cleaned up. Since its last burial was circa 1923, it is safe for another decade but this is a prime piece of real estate, sited in the heart of a deprived area: could better use be made of the land?  Others will disagree, but it is my strictly personal opinion that, in the case of Bancroft (Maiden Lane), the answer is yes. The site is ever vulnerable to vandalism and, since none of the descendants of the persons memorialised by the few remaining stones, nor the Board of Deputies nor the Burial Society, has come forward with concrete proposals for its long term maintenance and development, or the funds to secure it, would it not be more practical and socially useful for the area to be  made available to the local community in the form of a public garden or children’s play park? This would, of course entail the removal of these last stones and the proper reburial of those interred, as happened with Hoxton, but surely that would be a more dignified and respectful future than the inevitable decline.

Burial Grounds such as Brady Street, Lauriston Road and Alderney Road, however should never be treated in this manner: they are intrinsically linked to the history of Anglo Jewry and are very far from  reaching the tipping point of decay that we see in Bancroft Road or the onset of such decay already visible at West Ham. But we cannot count on their long-term future unless we, as individuals, are prepared to give either of our time or our money toward their upkeep: one has only to look at the magnificent transformation of the Deane Road cemetery in Liverpool to see what is possible when a community wills it.  Is there any chance that Quakers Lane Norwich or Ayres Key Sunderland might be similarly nurtured back to health?

Jewish administrative bodies must lead the way, but Jewish Genealogical and Family History Societies, local communities and individuals, both in the UK and beyond, must also take an active role. Access to Brady Street and other such “closed” grounds is severely restricted and organising a visit can be difficult and prolonged :The Board of Deputies, and others concerned with their administration, must start discussing how best to make them accessible to the many, rather than their perceived current attitude of restricting it to the few.  The single word argument against any such relaxation is invariably “SECURITY”. But that doesn’t answer.  Brady Street is surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, but on my last two visits, it was openly being used as a short cut by youths from the adjacent school who had evidently found an easy way through the defences.   Regular and well publicised monthly “open days” would be a start; followed by properly managed educational projects set up with schools, local  history groups, faith groups, and other interested bodies. And fund raising projects must be encouraged. It is not enough to  stand idle and wring ones hands. The Deane Road project has led the way. The 250th anniversary of the Brady Street Cemetery would be a good time for others to take up the challenge.

Angela Shire

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