A cemetery is just a place where people are buried, right?  Not Arnos Vale Cemetery. Set across 45 leafy acres just outside the city centre, it is so much more than ‘just’ a cemetery, with plenty of activities to get involved in and stories to discover.

Here are 10 facts you might not know about the oldest cemetery in the South West.

The oldest residents died long before the cemetery’s creation

Back in 1839 Bristol’s graveyards were overcrowded and smelly, they had been in use for centuries and were unpleasant places to bury a loved one. The first burial in this new green pleasant cemetery was Mary Breillat in July 1839.

Later in the 1890s the city graveyards began to be cleared, and many of those burials were moved to Arnos Vale, meaning that the oldest residents died long before the cemetery was even imagined.

People walking in sunny cemetery, credit: Arnos Vale Cemetery

It’s not a graveyard!

Oh? So, what's the difference? Arnos Vale was not set up by a religious organisation but by a group of shareholders who held a range of beliefs. They wanted to create a new burial space outside the city where different people could be buried. They created The Bristol General Cemetery Company.  

The cemetery contains two splendid chapels, both mortuary chapels, which means they are chapels for services for the burial of the dead. They were not used for Sunday worship. A graveyard usually has a church in it or is for a certain religion, but a cemetery is not, and a range of people are buried in the grounds. 

Graves at Arnos Vale Cemetery - credit Paul Box
Image credit: Paul Box

It’s the last resting place of over 300,000 people

The cemetery became a very fashionable place to be buried during the Victorian period.  This meant the rich and poor wanted their loved one to be remembered in Arnos Vale.

Once cremation became more popular it also became the place to be scattered in one of the two gardens of rest, or buried in individual or family plots. 

The first thing cremated in the cemetery was a dead sheep

In the Victorian era, cremation in the UK was not allowed. This all changed in the 20th Century when several court cases ruled that cremation was not illegal.  

The forward-thinking Bristol General Cemetery Company installed a handmade furnace. With this new technology, Arnos Vale became the first place of cremation in the South West. But when the cremation furnace was unveiled, people were suspicious. To help them understand cremation, an open day was held and a dead sheep cremated.

You can still see the cremation furnace as part of an exhibition which can be found under the café in the Spielman Centre. The cemetery no longer has working cremation furnaces, but people can still be scattered or buried on site. 

Graves in the mist at Arnos Vale Cemetery - credit Arnos Vale Cemetery

Not everyone is buried or scattered in the cemetery

Most people remembered in the cemetery are scattered or buried. There is also a crypt which has niches for people’s bodies.

After death the deceased was placed in a triple skinned coffin and put on a stone shelf in the crypt which is under the Anglican Chapel. The layered coffin prevents any leakage and was meant to stop any smells escaping. Once the ceremony had taken place, the niche was sealed with a stone tablet which was inscribed with the name of the deceased. You can descend the stairs into the crypt today and see these inscriptions.  

The whole cemetery would cover more than 22 football pitches

Arnos Vale is 45 acres: it stretches between Totterdown, Arnos Vale and Brislington. In fact, you can walk or cycle through the site to cut between the Wells Road (A37) and the Bath Road (A4). It is also an important part of the Bristol Green Corridor. The site is a wildlife corridor and part of Bristol’s lungs by contributing to Bristol’s tree canopy.

Aerial view of Arnos Vale Cemetery
Image credit: Paul Box

It's the last resting place of over 500 war dead

During the First and Second World Wars, Bristol had a number of hospitals which took in the sick and injured.  Those who succumbed were not usually returned to their home country or local area but were buried in Bristol.  

Arnos Vale has over 500 men and women resting in both Sailors and Soldiers Corner and in other graves in the cemetery. These war dead come from many countries including Canada, Australia, South Africa and Ireland. There are also three Victoria Cross holders remembered on site. 

Donated bodies rest near the cemetery wall

In the 1960s and 70s people who donated their bodies to Bristol Medical School were often buried in the cemetery. None of these graves had markers so few people knew the location of the deceased.

In 2010 a new plaque was unveiled to mark the burial place of those generous people who helped advance medical science. This can be found on the dividing wall between Arnos Vale and Holy Souls Catholic Cemetery next door.

Graves at Arnos Vale Cemetery in Brislington, Bristol

Arnos Vale’s architect is buried in the cemetery

Arnos Vale Cemetery was the very first garden cemetery in the South West. It was designed by architect Charles Underwood who is buried in a very simple grave behind the Anglican Chapel. It was designed to be a beautiful green space with exotic trees, beautiful buildings and a sculpted landscape.  

It is this Victorian attention to detail that makes the cemetery a wonderful place to enjoy and explore today. 

It's still doing what it was designed for

Many visitors are surprised to discover that Arnos Vale is still a working cemetery. Although the cemetery is quite full, there are new burial plots in the beautiful grounds and a wonderful Natural Burial Woodland where both cremated remains and sustainable biodegradable coffins can be placed.  

Arnos Vale is open for free every day. You can book on to a tour, take a wander in the grounds, get married there, see a film, grab a coffee or check out the gift shop, which stocks a range of products from local artists and makers. Check their website for the latest events.

Grave of Raja Rammohun Roy at Arnos Vale Cemetery in Brislington, Bristol - credit Visit West
Image - Grave of Raja Rammohun Roy at Arnos Vale Cemetery

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