Plants & People

Ecologists discover a place for the dead in graveyards

It was thought that people preferred graveyards to be tidy. A new survey finds that visitors can accept the presence of some decaying matter - opening more possibilities for biodiversity.
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Cemeteries are protected areas of green space, often in the heart of urban areas. They can provide habitat and refuge for wildlife in what could otherwise be a hostile environment. But these places are also managed areas with a highly valued cultural rather than a natural role. So what space is there to expand their value for biodiversity? Tanja Straka and colleagues in Berlin have been talking with the living users of cemeteries to see what they value. Their results, published in Land, show room for expanding the space for nature in these cherished places.

The study found that people visiting cemeteries in Berlin had different preferences for cemetery features, depending on why they had come to the place. However, there was a strong preference for ‘natural’ features. The team found this included features the groundskeepers could manage out of a site, including dead trees. The tolerance for decaying wood opens niches for more invertebrate species and fungi.

Cemeteries can play an important role in conservation because their cultural importance can offer them more protection from development than other green spaces. Yet this cultural element means that management must consider the land’s human use extremely important.

People who visited the cemeteries for natural experiences particularly valued meadows and wild areas. Straka and colleagues note that this is not a particularly surprising discovery as it correlates with surveys on the use of urban parks.

A path cuts through a cemetery. By the sides of the path are trees creating an avenue. Beyond on either side are more trees, giving the impression of a path through the woods, with undergrowth climbing over tree stumps and trunks. A closer inspection reveals some of these trunks and stumps are not trees but memorials. Flecks of light illuminate the cemetery, but the thick canopy means also that much is in shadow.
The old Jewish Cemetery in Weissensee, Berlin. Image: Canva.

“The more surprising findings were that people who visit cemeteries for mourning were positively associated with comfort in their grief that they experience from old trees,” write Straka and colleagues. “The item focusing on old trees was also related to religious faith and aligns with previous studies. De Lacy and Shackleton found that the presence of deciduous trees would remind the faithful that their life would also come to an end with leaves being away over winter but would also remind them about the spiritual afterlife with the re-sprout of deciduous trees in spring.”

The scientists found that older people increasingly valued trees and that the quality of the trees mattered. Visitors appreciated a few old trees much more than many younger trees. The team took the opportunity to see if this appreciation included dead trees.

“Enhancing wilderness elements in urban greenspaces is a promising approach to support biodiversity conservation and a range of social functions in cities. We thus tested whether the presence of a dead tree, a key wildness element, changes preferences for differently maintained cemetery areas. Surprisingly, the participants rated the tree pairs of photo stimuli with and without a dead tree similarly. This was unexpected because wilderness elements that were related to dead wood were found to be less liked in other landscape settings. Dead trees are often associated with safety issues, and the dead tree could be perceived as hazard issue for visitors in our study as well. Our study thus suggests that the integration of dead tree stems is at least tolerated in urban cemeteries,” write Straka and colleagues.

A plump little robin with its orange breast and face stares solemnly while perched on a lichen encrusted gravestone.
Robin on a gravestone. Image: Canva.

This finding matters as dead wood can provide nesting sites for birds or roosts for bats. The decaying tissue feeds fungi and invertebrates, which can feed other animals. Plants, too, can use dead trees as support.

One possible factor in the high value of nature in the survey might be its timing. The survey happened three months into the COVID-19 pandemic when escape from the home was particularly important. Other studies are also finding that green space mattered at this time. The pandemic helped highlight the value of cemeteries for people beyond mourning.

Straka and colleagues conclude. “Our study is to our knowledge the first study that shows also the appreciation for seeing wildlife in cemeteries. These results reveal an interesting, yet still unexplored research direction for urban cemeteries given that wildlife-inspired awe and wonder can foster transcendental and spiritual experiences and well-being.”

READ THE ARTICLE

Straka, T.M., Mischo, M., Petrick, K.J.S. and Kowarik, I. (2022) “Urban cemeteries as shared habitats for people and nature: Reasons for visit, comforting experiences of nature, and preferences for cultural and natural features,” Land, 11(8), https://doi.org/10.3390/land11081237

Translations by Google Translate.

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