Situated some seventeen miles north of Cambridge, the City of Ely rises above the flat landscape of the East Anglian fens, approximately 80 feet above sea level. Dominating the skyline is the majestic Ely Cathedral, over 1000 years old, and forming the focal point of this market town. Ely is rapidly expanding with over 15,000 inhabitants; the electrified rail link enabling London to be easily accessed, and many people travelling to work in Cambridge.
City of Ely Cemetery
Historically Ely was ‘The Isle of Ely’, an island surrounded by water and marshy fen, fairly isolated until the draining of the fens started in the 17th century. Now the River Ouse forms a natural boundary on the eastern edge, and the City rises steeply above it looking out over many miles of low lying, rich agricultural land. The City of Ely has not only the Cathedral to care for the community’s spiritual needs but also a Parish Church, St. Mary the Virgin, and many other churches representing different denominations. All denominations use the City of Ely cemetery. Prior to the mid 19th century all burials took place either at Holy Cross (the cemetery for Holy Trinity parish) next to the Cathedral, or St. Mary’s, but these sites eventually became very overcrowded, a condition exacerbated by a cholera epidemic in 1832. In 1855 due to the state of the two existing cemeteries it was found necessary to purchase land for a new cemetery.
A piece of land of approximately 6 acres, belonging to the New Barns Estate was bought for £600 by Wm Marshall esq. In 1856 a splendid Chapel was built on the land by a Mr. Freeman for £2,700 and the new cemetery was put under the management of the Burial Board, which comprised 15 members. The land was divided into consecrated and unconsecrated areas to allow for the burial of Anglicans and non conformists. The new cemetery was opened on 12th May 1855 and the same cemetery with additional ground is still in use today making the total area just over 13 acres.
The Cemetery Chapel
The cemetery lies on a gentle rise in the landscape and the Chapel sits in the most elevated position giving it a certain prominence and stature. Completed in 1856 the Chapel is a brick and stone construction and is most unusual. It was designed by J.L. Prichett of Darlington and comprises two identical mirror-image Chapels joined together by a belfry and spire with single bell. The belfry arches over a central roadway giving covered access to each of the Chapel entrances. The single width roadway circumnavigates the entire Chapel. Originally one Chapel was for the use of Anglican burials, the other non conformist. Both Chapels are vaulted and have steep timber roofs, which are slated. Both have all the original detail internally and the north Chapel is decorated in the style of the period.
Today only the north Chapel is used for services, the south Chapel being used as a general workroom by the cemetery custodians. The City of Ely Council renovated the North Chapel in 1999. This investment and hard work means the people of Ely have a cemetery which to be proud of.
The cemetery grounds are accessed from a double-gated sweeping driveway. At the entrance is a period house surrounded by mature woodland, and these trees continue to follow the curving driveway so that as it is approached the cemetery is glimpsed through the different coloured barks and leaves against a backdrop of lush green lawn. Due to the undulations in the landscape not all of the cemetery can be seen at once giving it an intimate feel like a large garden. As the driveway rises up towards the Chapel the oldest section of the cemetery is on the left, the large darkened and weathered stones giving the centuries-past feeling of belonging, like the traditional churchyard. The land immediately on the right is low-lying and as a result quite wet making it unsuitable for adult burials. It is therefore reserved for child burials, and as a result is sparsely populated allowing for a predominance of lawn with a scattering of smaller headstones. The perimeter of the cemetery where it borders the roadway is screened by various trees and mixed hedges, as befits the rural setting, and is a home to a variety of small wildlife.
At the furthest edge of the cemetery a huge mound can be seen surmounted by a splendid, ancient ash tree. The mound was the site of a windmill and traces of a cart track and possible outbuildings can still be seen. The long-held belief that it was the site of a mass burial during a cholera epidemic, is not true, but the story has created Ely’s very own urban myth! Further along are a few war graves, identical and simple. Many of those drafted from this area in the Second World War saw action in the Far East and never returned.
Another innovation by the City of Ely Council’s cemetery committee has been better landscaping, turning the area around the Chapels into a more attractively planted setting both to enhance the lovely Chapel and bring colour and scent into the cemetery. Care and thought has been put into the design so that mourners stepping out of cars do not immediately walk onto either flower beds or wet turf. An edging of gravel between the roadway and the flower beds has proved most practical and attractive. The flower beds comprise roses for the most part and a scheme exists to enable relatives to purchase a commemorative rose bush. The custodians of the cemetery have planted a large number of bulbs so that with the advent of Spring the crocus and daffodils appear in the lawns and borders, and have in the past few years put great effort into softening the landscape with the planting of a variety of attractive shrubs.
Similarly the place designated for cremation burials has been given special thought, with an area within the cemetery being turned into a separate hedged garden with seating. Smaller headstones are within a lawned area, and a circular pathway with scented flower bed provides an attractive centrepiece, again with an opportunity to purchase a commemorative rose. Work is still continuing in this area so that in years to come the garden will be an oasis of beauty with mature shrubs, plants and bulbs providing variety and colour throughout the year, as in the rest of the cemetery. Seating is provided in the cemetery in areas where there have been burials within the last 50 years, but if relatives wish to provide seating in the form of a memorial bench in any part of the cemetery this is acceptable following appropriate liaison with the council clerk.
Generally the Cemetery Committee try to be as sympathetic and understanding as possible to mourners. The aim is to provide a place of privacy, beauty and tranquillity – a place to mourn, a place to contemplate, or simply be.
The Friends of Ely Cemetery (FOEC) was formed with an aim to generate more interest in the upkeep of the cemetery. The Committee meets on a regular basis and has recruited volunteers to update the cemetery software with historical records and also allocate friendless graves to volunteers to look after. It is planned that the inscriptions on the memorials will be recorded on a database to ensure when they fade on the memorial, the memory is not lost.
On a practical note the cemetery is environmentally friendly, with compost bins for all vegetable waste, to be used as mulch on the gardens. Water taps and watering cans for relatives to tend their plots are available, with refuse bins for visitors waste frequently emptied.
To date 15,626 internments have taken place. The cemetery custodians are on site Monday to Thursday 8.15am – 4.15pm and Friday 8.15am – 3.45pm, and the cemetery opening hours are 8.15am ‘til dusk, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.
There are two cemetery custodians, one full time and one part time, who each take an immense pride in their work and the service they provide at such a sensitive time. Many compliments are paid to their hard work in maintaining the cemetery and gardens to a very high standard, so that the cemetery is a place of beauty and tranquility and very much adds to the City of Ely landscape.
For further information about the Chapel, please contact City of Ely Council by telephoning 01353 669659 or email email@example.com