The rural churchyard, God’s acre, is one of the most enduring features of the Devon landscape, and is a very powerful symbol of shelter in our culture. Together with the church, it forms the physical and spiritual centre of the rural community. The churchyard is the most sacred and usually the most ancient enclosure in the parish, and the memorials – both public and private – are a tangible link between the inhabitants today and their forebears.
Churchyards are also a peaceful haven for wildlife, containing old and distinctive trees, wildflowers, lichens, rare fungi, mosses and ferns. They provide food and shelter for many animals including small mammals, amphibians, slow worms, insects and birds, and are also the perfect places in which to identify and learn about a diverse range of edible plants. Foraging for wild foods in churchyards is a gift from our past, a heritage skill passed down through generations: from elders to their children and their grandchildren, and so on. It is a traditional means of feeding and nourishing ourselves and, while foraging, we can spend time reflecting upon the lessons of our forefathers.
The continued existence of our churchyards cannot be taken for granted. Today, many historic churchyards and cemeteries are now full and have become neglected, though they may well contain buildings, artefacts and landscapes of great heritage value and interest. With appropriate design, planning and ambition, the potential health and environmental benefits of churchyards can be realised. They can provide green oases within built-up areas, places for rest and contemplation in a more general sense, offering opportunities for fresh air and exercise or simply a place for quiet communion with Nature.
The Devon Living Churchyards Project is an Exeter diocesan initiative which recognises that, as stewards of creation, our Christian vision is for a just and sustainable future. We are committed to promoting a deeper understanding of the environment and to minimising our environmental impact. Together with other partners, such as the Devon Wildlife Trust and Get Devon Buzzing Scheme, we can help rural parishes to assess the potential of their churchyard and, while being sensitive to the needs of all the users and in particular to its primary function as a burial ground, we can help rural parishes prepare a comprehensive project brief which will be community focused and inclusive. It will reflect local character, issues and opportunities. For further information, please see the web pages of the Devon Churches Green Action, Eco Church Southwest and the Diocese of Exeter,
Improving your churchyard will also contribute to A Rocha’s Eco Church scheme, an exciting initiative which will challenge and equip congregations to care for God’s creation in all areas of church life. The free online survey and supporting resources are designed to equip your church to express your care for God’s world in your worship and teaching; in how you look after your buildings and land; in how you engage with your local community and in global campaigns, and in the personal lifestyles of your congregation.
David Curry, Voluntary Environment Adviser, Diocese of Exeter
Email David Curry