We usually associate graveyards with death, but there's another way to look at them: as havens for wildlife. Graveyards are quiet places. Often they're hundreds of years old. They don't get treated with chemicals like a farm or covered in litter like a roadside. This makes them perfect habitats for many different species of animals, birds, insects and plants, from field-mice and hedgehogs to robins and blackbirds, from bumblebees and hoverflies to bluebells and wild roses.
If you sit quietly in a graveyard, you'll discover it isn't such a dead place after all. The longer you wait, the more life will appear. A robin might perch on a gravestone and start singing. A wren might hop along a mossy wall, looking for insects. You might see a peacock or tortoise-shell butterfly fluttering by. Spiders will be spinning their webs or waiting patiently for prey. If you're lucky, you might see something rarer like a shrew, a tiny mouse-like creature that is, for its size, one of the most ferocious hunters in the animal kingdom.
And there will be probably lichen on the gravestones, creating beautiful, colourful patterns and providing a sense of tradition and history. If there are lots of lichens, it's a good sign. The air must be clean and unpolluted. They have returned to many city graveyards now that factories are no longer pouring out smoke and darkening the sky. In a city a haven of peace and natural beauty is especially welcome. In big, crowded metropolises like London or New York, graveyards allow history to enter the present day, because graveyards aren't constantly changing and being built over or adapted to new purposes.
Many people are now recognizing the importance of cemeteries and graveyards for wildlife. We're starting to manage them with that in mind. Some churches have started to sow wild-flower seeds among the graves, so that wild flowers can provide nectar for butterflies and other insects. Wild flowers are not usually as spectacular or colourful as flowers bought in a florist or supermarket, but they are appropriate and dignified in their own way. Some graves are old and are no longer tended by relatives of the departed, so it's good to think that they can still be decorated with something beautiful.
That happens in spring and summer. As autumn sets in, churchyards begin to change. Leaves fall from the trees and birds are no longer singing. Fat spiders catch the last remaining insects and the air starts to grow cold. But life isn't disappearing: it's just preparing for sleep during the hard months of winter. Seeds are waiting in the soil, ready for the warm sun to return. Caterpillars have spun themselves silken cocoons for shelter.
But hardy yew-trees, associated with churchyards for many centuries, barely seem to notice winter. They're evergreens and they live for a very long time, growing slowly and enduring whatever the weather can throw at them, whether it's a summer drought or prolonged winter snow. The bright red flesh of their berries is a good food for many birds. It's a tree that symbolizes endurance and the hope of renewal and it seems to stand guard over the ground it's planted on. Graveyards aren't just places for the dead: there's a lot of life there too.