To the grave and beyond

To Jeane Trend-Hill, cemeteries are not places of gloom and sadness. Rather, they’re full of life stories and architectural treasures – and she can’t get enough of them.

By Oliver Bennett

A woman in black blazer and trousers and a red and white striped top stands next to the imposing grave of John Bunyan
Jeane Trend-Hill. Photo:Oliver Bennett

“I started hanging around cemeteries when I was young,” says Jeane. “My parents went one Sunday a month to visit dead relatives and while they were cleaning the graves and putting out flowers, I’d walk around and look up on the angels, crosses and imposing mausoleums.” As she grew older Jeane began researching and photographing Victorian graves, but she then became a civil servant and moved to Essex. A series of life events then propelled her back to her grave calling.

“I never made a career out of my interest in graves until 2015, when everything changed,” she says. “I was diagnosed with severe pancolitis, and I was in agony. My marriage broke up as my husband became abusive.”

Jeane moved back to Clerkenwell where she had been brought up, regained her health to an extent and started writing about cemetery architecture for funeral trade magazines and becoming an expert in grave heritage. She has recently written a book, One Designer Clad Foot In The Grave, about her interests.

“To me, cemeteries are outdoor art galleries,” she says. “One day I unveiled a refurbished grave in Victorian clothes which was covered by the local press. A few weeks later, I was contacted by a film director and asked if I wanted to be in a film, The Day My Nan Died, with Alison Steadman. I said yes, and really enjoyed it.” From there, Jeane started to do other bits and pieces, including a documentary, gangster movies and playing a mourner in a rap video, as well as making artworks and continuing to take photographs of graves across the world. High points have included winning a photo competition for a picture from the City of London Cemetery and when Jeane used her prize money to visit Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof Cemetery where many great composers are buried. “I once flew to Barcelona for the day just to photograph one grave,” she recalls.

As her own father died when she was 14, and her mother when she was 20, Jeane is herself used to organising funerals. But while she did consider a career as an undertaker, and studied Mortuary Science and grief counselling, she didn’t go into the funerary professions, preferring to follow the path of an artist, writer and friend to the dead. For while Jeane’s “not afraid of dying”, she takes death very seriously.

“Because of my Catholic upbringing, if I walk into a church and there’s a funeral taking place, I don’t walk out,” she says and this has led her to attend many funerals for those without friends or family. “Unvisited funerals pull at my heartstrings, especially veterans’ funerals,” she says. For one gentleman who was very fond of tea, she bought a tea bag to put in his grave. “I’ll often take flowers to a cemetery and leave them on the graves of those who don’t appear to have had any visitors.” For these reasons, in 2019 Jeane was nominated as one of the Mayor of London’s Unsung Heroic Women.

As Jeane knows many people in London’s cemeteries she has been allowed to witness a cremation through the viewing hole. What was it like? “Beautiful, really. It changed my mind about cremation.” Does she converse with dead people? “I do talk when I go around cemeteries and sometimes sing to them,” she says, and as to the afterlife, she “keeps an open mind”, adding that she has “seen some things that I couldn’t explain.” On one tour of the catacombs in Brompton cemetery this thin, tall man came in and once the guide had finished, she asked who it was. “He hadn’t seen him, but said it was the image of a gravedigger who had died.”

Is there anything that we should do as a society to come to terms with death? “Just be more open, talk about it more,” she says, citing phenomena like Death Cafes as a greater willingness to face the one inevitability. But there’s something that we should be concerned about, she says, namely that a lot of graves are being reclaimed. “We’re very tight on space now and cemeteries are being repossessed and turned into car parks.” Respect is everything, she says, and that is disrespectful.

One Designer Clad Foot In The Grave by Jeane Trend-Hill, £4.99 and Kindle £1.99 via Amazon

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