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Faith and Commemoration

This section covers Historic England current and planned research into faith buildings such as churches, chapels, mosques and temples and commemoration of the dead at cemetries and burial grounds.

Places of Worship

Faith buildings are at the heart of the historic environment. Their function as centres for faith communities means they are key buildings within society.

They are often the buildings with the longest period of continuous use in a community. Their position may inherit or reflect earlier traditions and as such, they are storehouses of collective memory, cultural identity and personal history. Their continued use, adaptation and evolution show changes to social activity, religious belief and practice, and the nature of communities over time.

In some areas places of worship are under pressure due to declining congregation numbers; whilst there has been a growth in other faith communities. Our research is not limited to Christian churches or chapels and includes understanding the other elements of the changing landscape of faith in England.

Outline of a mosque with a church spire in the background at dusk.
The faith landscape of England: a mosque minaret and chuch spire in Manchester. © Historic England DP 137698

Historic burial grounds, cemeteries and churchyards

Historic England is also working to better understand our historic burial grounds. As places of memory for individuals and communities, burial grounds, cemeteries and churchyards are extremely important to many people.

They have an almost universal social importance through the rites associated with death and a common wish for commemoration and remembering.

The existing faith communities in this country work largely on a voluntary basis, acting as guardians of our burial grounds. Burial grounds include a huge range of sites, in terms of time depth, character and visibility and so form a hugely complex area of the historic environment.

Many sites lack visible remains and are often hidden, forgotten or poorly recognised.  Very ancient sites potentially allow us to understand past people, revealing the importance of commemorating the dead in prehistory, while other ceremonial sites (including Stonehenge) were clearly connected to past people's religious and spiritual beliefs, though many details of those beliefs now elude us.

Most more recent sites are characterised by visible remains or structures (monuments, headstones, chapels, lodges etc) and their landscape presence. They are highly significant for local and faith communities, especially with regard to personal and collective identity, but, they often have little direct economic value and can become neglected or overlooked.

Their full heritage significance, deriving from monumental, design and archaeological heritage values is often poorly understood.

Where archaeologists investigate them, they increase our knowledge of the past.  The public response to development affecting burial grounds can show the strength of feeling many of us have about the need to protect this fragile and often highly personal aspect of our past. 

Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, City Road, Islington, London. John Bunyan's tomb, with a stone effigy, is in the foreground with simpler gravestones in the background.
Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, City Road, Islington, London. John Bunyan's tomb is in the foreground. © Historic England, Derek Kendall
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