Open house among the tombstones shows that cemeteries are not always so grave is not always such a grave business

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The Independent Online
Thousands of east Londoners will give Southend and the Lakeside shopping centre a miss tomorrow in favour of an outing among the headstones and Gothic funereal architecture of the City of London Cemetery in Wanstead Flats.

Grave diggers will demonstrate their craft, parties will be shown into the crematorium furnace and, weather permitting, families will picnic on the lawns of one of the capital's most tranquil and well-tended green spaces.

The English attitude to death as a taboo subject makes an open day at a cemetery sound macabre. But at the City of London they see it as an educational mission, an opportunity to dispel some of the myths and mysteries of burial and cremation at a time when people are not grieving.

Lynn Heath, the cemetery's projects manager said: "Death of a loved one is something we all have to come to terms with eventually. If we understand the funeral process, then hopefully we are going to cope with the situation better when we have to face it."

Run by the Corporation of London, the 150-year old cemetery is set in 200 acres of lawn and trees. The victims of Jack the Ripper and inmates of Newgate Prison are among the half-million souls laid to rest there. Up to 10,000 visitors are expected tomorrow, the fourth annual open-day. East Londoners have a tradition of giving their dead a classy send-off and on parade at the exhibitions by undertakers will be the top-notch black horses and glass-sided carriages used several times a week.

Exhibitors are strictly forbidden from selling services or touting for business. "There is a fine line between something which is dignified and something crass or tacky," observed Mrs Heath. "An event such as this has to be done with taste." That means no ice cream, no alcohol and no bouncy castles, though there is tea and other refreshments.

Cremation has attracted a grisly stock of myths, including taking bodies out of coffins, collecting gold teeth, and no certainty that the ashes are the right ones. To counter such tales, visitors are given a guided tour of the cremator.

Tomorrow, for the first time, there will be a multi-faith memorial service with contributions from Sikhs, Jews and Hindus as well as from Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Tours of the cemetery will focus on its rich flora and fauna - 168 species of wildflowers and 55 bird species have been identified - the varied geology of the masonry and its ornate funereal architecture.

There will also be public lectures of the British way of death and on the early history of cemeteries, with tales of autocratic vicars and drunken body snatchers.

The first burial at the Corporation's out-of-town cemetery was in June 1856, three years after church graveyards in the City were condemned as unfit. Currently there are some 1,300 burials and 4,500 cremations each year.

However the Gothic-style catacombs proved unpopular. Of the original 275 cells, into which coffins are placed, only 98 were sold in 130 years and the wings of the crescent-shaped structure have been converted into a columbarium for urns.