Goths slapped for shooting Whitby graveyard

Posing on tombstones: is it disrespectful, or is it a celebration of the cycles of life? Photo by Flickr user zharth.

Twice a year, goths from all over the world flock to Whitby, in northern England, for the mother of all gothic festivals: the Whitby Gothic Weekend. They dress up, listen to bands, and visit the St Mary’s Church grounds.

Goths and cemeteries go hand in hand. Why? According to Amy at Ultimate Goth Guide:

Graveyards are peaceful and serene; and by and large people tend to stay away from them. The subject of death, for the mainstream, is taboo, which makes the resting place of the dead somewhere to be feared. Whereas Goths, as I have previously mentioned, are more appreciative of the beauty that can be found in dark or even frightening things. Death is not something that is hoped for or courted, but it is a fact of life, and as such has a beauty of its own. Non-Goths may find it uncomfortable to appreciate the beauty of a cemetery, but the ornate statues and crumbling gravestones are beautiful nonetheless.

But chances are, a Goth in a graveyard probably isn’t thinking about death at all – they are likely to enjoy the sense of history, the tranquil atmosphere, the beautiful carvings.

The St Mary’s Church grounds are something special to goths — in fact, it has been called “a Stonehenge for goths”. That’s because Bram Stoker included the graveyard in his novel Dracula as the location where the vampire takes Lucy Westenra as his victim. The place oozes atmosphere, as you can see here. You can read the passage where Jonathan Harker finds Lucy in the cemetery here.

So, the churchyard has been part of goths’ Whitby pilgramage — until this fall, when the church rector banned all photography in the cemetery. Although many newspapers have claimed this ban only pertains to goths, in fact it includes anyone who might want to take photos on the grounds:

John Hemson, the church’s warden said: “The reason the rector did it was, it had become unbearable. I sat there one day and in half an hour nine photographers walked past me.

“The Goths stand, sit or even lie on the table graves. there are people in Whitby who had families there even though it closed in 1861 and they object to it very much.”

Fair enough. In general, cemeteries are private property — supported and paid for by the families of those buried there. This is especially true on church grounds. Many graveyards ban photography for just this reason. At the same time, graveyards are pieces of history that include beautiful statuary and grounds. People come from all over the world to visit Paris’ Père Lachaise or New Orleans’ St. Louis cemeteries — and to take pictures to document their discoveries.

For a response from the goth world, again here’s Amy from the Ultimate Goth Guide:

I’m sure that in our younger and dafter days many of us were photographed draped all over assorted stones in our local cemeteries, but I think that most of us always have and will continue to draw the line at placing our booted feet all over the resting places of the dead. Surely we can all agree that that is disrespectful. And frankly, we Goths are overall a pleasant and affable lot, and would, I’m sure, be alarmed and upset to learn that behaviour in the cemetery had offended others. A small minority aside (probably the same minority who trample all over table stones), I’m sure that the ban will be respected and upheld by the spooky community.

Should goths — or anyone — be prohibited from touching, sitting, or laying on gravestones for photographs? Is it disrespectful? Should photography in cemeteries be banned?


11 responses to “Goths slapped for shooting Whitby graveyard

  1. I’m not a goth, but I am a photographer (and the most recent shoot I did took place in a graveyard!), so I definitely have a horse in this race. I think banning photography is silly. If the rector doesn’t want people trampling on graves, he should ban trampling on graves. The act of capturing a scene with a camera in and of itself harms no one (unless you’re talking about someone who believes photography will steal their soul, which we are not!). If the problem is a touristy one (just too many people coming in at once), then maybe allow non-interested parties access to the graveyard only during certain hours.

  2. I do not like to see photography banned. Capturing images of the memorials and sharing them with others allows everyone to appreciate the beauty of a cemetery.

    However, standing/sitting/laying on top of memorials can and should be prevented. It is all too easy to damage table stones and tablets by accident. As someone who regularly repairs and resets broken headstones, I’ve learned just how fragile those pieces of stone actually are to physical and chemical degradation.

    Would someone drape themselves over Michelangelo’s David or the Mona Lisa for a photo session? Gravestones are pieces of historical art with their own intrinsic value beyond the matter of respect for the dead or the living. Use them as a backdrop, not a prop, and let them rest in peace.

  3. Of course it’s disrespectful. Obnoxious, even. Cemeteries are not truly public places, and people should be aware that if they can’t behave with respect, they can be banned. (I say this as a cemetery-lover from the time I was, oh, 5 or so.) Goths who treat cemeteries as props–and that’s what some of these people are doing, no matter how they attempt to dress it up–ought to be ashamed of themselves. You can take a photo in a cemetery without actually lolling on the grave or walking on it. Please remember that people’s ancestors are buried there, and that actual local people have religious beliefs about how to treat graves, regardless of how you feel yourself.

    Goodness. I can’t believe we’re talking about this.

  4. As the daughter, granddaughter and great granddaughter of geneologists/family history buffs I’m more than a little off put by the photography ban as it is a way for some of us to document our family histories. In fact I find the idea a little upsetting since the photography it’s self doesn’t hurt the site or the grave stone. Would they rather people took rubbings which could harm the monuments?

    So I agree with Beth’s comment that if the objection is sitting, laying on, and generally disrespecting the site banning photography isn’t really going to solve the problem.

  5. It’s a difficult question because it’s something that is culturally determined. What I find offensive as a Goth may be pretty much the opposite of what ordinary people may find offensive.
    So while I can understand that this is something that upsets people and I’m happy to not do it on those grounds I’m pretty much mistified by why it upsets them in the first place. I love old graveyards (including St Mary’s) and have spent many a happy hour in them, and have taken photographs and been photographed.
    These are beautiful places – our ancestors put a lot of skill and hard work into making beautiful graves and nature has done her bit to improve on much of that. I’d want people to come and read my grave and think about my life and admire the stonemasons handywork the way I do when I visit these places. I love to feel close to those who have gone before me and feel that connection to the past.
    I can’t get my head around graveyard shunning, to me pretending that these people never where and trying to ignore them is inhuman and unnatural, and any culture that does that is in trouble.
    I’m also upset by modern graveyards, the restrictions on size and decoration, the uglyness and that dreadful fishtank gravel they use so much. If I end up with something like that I will come back and make sure someone does something about it. No grave at all is better than something so ugly and depressing. I’d rather be forgotten than associated with something like that.
    So personally as long as no one is damaging the place then I’d be happy for them to be there and do whatever they like. At least it’s being appreciated and people are being remembered even if it’s only in the vaguest of ways. If anyone would like to be photographed nude on my gravestone go ahead, I hope it’s pretty enough for them to want to.
    We should hold onto our history and we should hold on to our ancestors (even if they’re not strictly ours) because I’d hate to think they wasted their time being alive and everything they learned and felt and did is forgotten. No one deserves that.

    • Well put, Cobweb. As a Goth who has enjoyed the beauty of Whitby and its cemeteries before, I couldn’t agree more. I think that as long as respect for the dead is demonstrated, there’s no problem in documenting beautiful graveyards.

  6. Really interesting question, and must say I’m conflicted.

    My reaction might stem to asking what shots are going to be taken. Are they respectful of the space and people associated with it.

    I know in film we have to apply to shoot in a cemetary and have to adhere to a set of rules. Often any tombstones that are shot close up are props, rather than real tomb stones.

    Seeing as I plan to be cremated, this is not a question I need to worry about personally, but would I want people I don’t know using my tomb stone as a fallic symbol. Not particularly.

  7. Have thought long and hard about this, having seen both sides of the situation from being a Goth visiting Whitby and someone who has also a lifelong association with Whitby in a very none Goth manner (Dad has kept a boat in Whitby since before I was born).

    I am going to work in the culture where Whitby is situated. It is a tiny provisional coastal town, beautiful in a Victorian way and conservative, It has residents whose family have lived there for generations, whose family are buried in St Mary’s Graveyard.

    This is about respect and how in “use” a graveyard is. St Mary’s is very much in use, not for new graves but it is visited by the families who still live in Whitby. The problem arises I think because it appears to be an old graveyard and many of us are used to being able to visit old and run down graveyards such as the one in Harehills, Leeds which has been allowed to become a wildlife sanctuary, so no-one visits, no real up keep and is chockful of beautiful Victorian graves, which no-one minds if you end up artfully draped over a crumbling grave for the odd photo.

    As I have attended Whitby Goth weekends I have seen partying in St Mary’s graveyard and personally I think it is a disgusting lack of respect to the residents of Whitby. And personally I would be very unhappy if I came across anyone draped across the Rayner family grave for the sake of a photograph no matter how artful it was. Whitby is in a very difficult situation as the main source of income for 98% of the residents are tourists and the tourist trade, so it is forced to promote the story of Dracula and of course it is St Mary’s graveyard where he first appears to Lucy. Therefore you get just regular tourists traipsing all over the graveyard taking photo’s etc. I think a lot of the problem is that Goths often try and do their photo taking at night. Plus we look weird and the residents of Whitby don’t get out much so any scandal helps to pass the time. I would like to point out the rise of the paparazzi at Whitby, when I first started going (the second one ever, Cobweb went to the first one) there was probably one professional photographer from the local Gazette, the last time I went to Whitby the number of professional and semi professional photographers looking for something unusual to shoot was massive and quite a few had congregated in St Mary’s graveyard, I can understand where the Rector is coming from.

    I know the argument that we celebrate death to celebrate life and that taking artistic photo’s of beautiful old graves is an expression of this, however we need to be cognisant of other people and their needs.

    I think what I’m trying to say is if it is disused what the hell, but if it used avoid draping yourself or partner in crime over nice victorian grave furniture, unless it happens to be your family grave furniture. Certainly in this country it is still seen by the majority of the heathen masses that even just walking on peoples graves is bad form. Finally I think nice architectural photo’s with no-one in them at all are ok in any graveyard, used or disused.

    • Kt, thanks so much for your thoughts — you come at it from a really valuable set of experiences/perspectives. I do wonder why the rector banned all photos rather than just banning anyone from touching the stones, but maybe one is easier to enforce than another.

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