Skeletons in the Closet

Credit: John Mason

The significance of contemporary vandalism at Glasgow’s necropolis
Caroline C. Evans Abbott

Seasons seem to change faster framed by the haunting green aisles of Glasgow’s Necropolis as the whole of the city is laid out before visitors and natives alike. But despite its sweeping panorama views, cracking stones, and lichen-covered etchings, its darkly Victorian, romantic appeal is tarnished in cowardly corners by litter, vandalism, and evidence of debauchery within the borders of this “City of The Dead”. Just beyond the famed “Bridge of Sighs”, Glasgow’s most expansive monument to memory – and one of its most popular historic monuments, housing the remains of many notable University-affiliated delegates – is suffering in silence. At the peak of the tourist season in summer and early autumn, the Necropolis is outwardly immaculate; a mossy beacon of a transformative era. During this time, trash litters not the walkways themselves, nor do the garden beds imply a lack of care from diligent maintenance staff working hard to uphold them. But tucked away behind the ornate gardens and complimentary flora, compromised iron gates of mausoleums reveal broken bottles, trash, looting, and graffiti: some decades old, others clearly fresh. Broken mausoleum floors reveal gaping caverns beneath, inspiring cautiously-curious eyes to peer as far as they dare, and winter’s comparably barren scenery makes this all-the-more possible, drawing attention to an infrequently-discussed issue. Graveyards are bound to bear the brunt of the passage of time: an established and culturally-acknowledged component of their metaphoric appeal is indeed their steadfast stoicism in the face of all-season decay and the systematic breaking-down of memories as time marches forward. But whether eroded by weather or by man, each culture has its own traditions with regard to the dead; many hinging upon fear, superstitiously reinforced cultural norms, and health concerns, the latter of which (in some ways) inspired the need for the Necropolis itself.

The monument was designated as a respectful, interdenominational dominion from which the city’s dead could rest peacefully in 1833 – and moreover, to minimise the unpleasant side-effects which accompanied the city’s rising population, including fewer and fewer burial locations, and relevant, related health concerns. As with many cemeteries, the largest and most decadent monuments typically belonged to pillars of the Glaswegian community, but the Necropolis opened its earth to constituents of humbler legacies as well. Today, the massive graveyard encompasses 50,000 bodies over fifteen hectares… but with only 3,500 stones, not all graves have an individual monument, making preservation of the site’s overall integrity all the more critical to emotional preservation and to the psychological health of family visitors. In January of 2013, a storm of outrage swept through Glasgow when, most notably, an extreme case of anti-religious graffiti was found at the monument dedicated to the memory of John Knox, a religious reformer most well-known for founding the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and arguably among the upper echelon of Scottish society’s esteemed natives. Aiming to make a statement, the phrases “No God“, and “Your Life Has Been A Lie” (among other, equally harsh sentiments) could not be washed from the minds of many Glasgow locals as easily as it could be removed from the pediment of the monument, despite the Glasgow City Council Graffiti Removal Team’s best efforts. Toppled angels, broken stones, and other signs of mischief were not easily restored, causing deep sadness in the hearts of many Glaswegians. Again in October 2013, three young men between the ages of seventeen and twenty were convicted of vandalism of the cemetery in July 2011, when scrawled messages of “white power” and swastikas littered notable graves across the cemetery, as well as instances of physical damage to other stones. Both incidents were met with cultural outrage – in many cases, prompting Glaswegians to urge the council to take more authoritative steps in securing the cemetery from future attacks, instead of continuing to take a more reactive approach. Authority responses to these particular incidents were swift and vehement, but call into question the double standard at play concerning the graves of lesser-known individuals whose monuments are adorned with artlessly scrawled obscenities and littered with trash – something which is still occurring today, over four years later. Whilst improvement is implied through lack of recent negative press, this fact, in conjunction with certain very obvious cases of irreversible graffiti and untouched rubbish within mausoleums, calls into question the possibility that, perhaps, Glasgow doesn’t want to talk about the skeletons in its closet.

Current information available through the Necropolis’ webpage indicates a vested interest in preservation which reflects the multitude of work put forth by passionate maintainers of the monument, and details several ways visitors can get involved in the site’s history. But community disrespect is also a component of that history, one which could strongly benefit from acknowledgement and further discussion, if only for the purpose of prevention. In our contemporary political climate, and throughout history, the defacing of individual graves, historic monuments, and even entire cemeteries, is a well-documented tool of socio-cultural expression: and for what it’s worth, many would argue that vandals cannot injure the pride of the dead. But pride in Scotland is a special, undying beast, and as many other nations would agree, scrawling “fuck” onto a centuries-old gravestone does little to inspire political or religious reformation. What makes these less-specific acts an underreported phenomena is not their innocuous nature, nor their lack of frequency, but their target location and the shame attached to them: no one remembers old so-and-so – but attack the grave of someone notable and the press falls to pieces, reporting the disgrace of a crime which, in truth, exhibited symptoms in cases prior, warning of the storm to come borne of an issue which is both difficult to address tactically and culturally. The longer these minimal crimes go undiscussed, the more mischief-makers will take up arms and spray paint cans to insight a public reaction. Like desperate, ignored, petulant children lashing out, breaking a precious family artefact is a cry for attention. A case which received as much publicity as the vandalism of the monument of John Knox should have acted as a catalyst for improvement and preventative change through discussion, but seems to have faded from public attention – and critically, has not deterred vandals from doing what vandals do best.

In death, we are each united with an experimental spiritual fate considered by many to be the great equaliser: bringing us before the ultimate unknown, before our faith, lack thereof, or simply our vested adhesion to belief in something better. In death all are equal, and so we are stripped of our titles, monuments to our name, and pillars recognising our achievement. While the majority of these graves go undisturbed, and efforts to clean and prevent vandalism within the public area are well-established, those memorials beset with crude markings deserve the integrity of initial protection and justice: that which is underserved through lack of acknowledgement of lesser acts of disrespect to the dead. An ethereal domicile meant to bridge the land of the living and the dead, the Necropolis embodies these ephemeral eternities, affected indiscriminately by the changing cultural climate, weathering both the proud moments and great blunders of lost souls which wander within. To serve our living, Glasgow must first serve her dead, as they have stood the test of time throughout all seasons.


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