Aberfan Cemetery, White Arches, near Merthyr Tydfil, Wales

The Aberfan Disaster and Tragedy

Since the apocalyptic collapse of a coal tip onto a school full of children in the mining village of Aberfan on 21 October 1966, Aberfan cemetery has become a place of pilgrimage as people wish to visit and pay their respects to the Lost Generation as they have become known.

Visitors travel from across the world to visit the site of the Aberfan disaster and think of the families that were tragically dealt a bad card that day.

On that fateful day, 50 years ago, an entire generation of children was buried alive in their school when the pile of rubbish extracted from the coal mines slipped and buried 2-3 of their classrooms, smashing one end of the school to pieces and burying the children in a swirling mass of black slurry that churned their bodies, desks and masonry through the building.

116 children died that day, most of them at school. Others were buried alive in their homes next door to the school.

How Do You Bury 116 Children?

With such a cataclysmic event and a total of 144 bodies to be buried, this is a problem that needed to be solved. Some people will already have family plots within the graveyard or even elsewhere, some would wish to have their own private burials, for others although the mass burial was occurring they were still waiting for their loved ones to be dug out of the slurry and to be identified.

The last body wasn't dug out until a week later.

  • On Friday 21 October the slurry hit the school.

Bodies needed to be dug out, washed, tagged and identified. A "cause of death" had to be established - some were suffocated to death, some drowned. Not all bodies were complete at the start, although they digging teams did keep going until every body part had been found and repatriated.

  • On Monday 24 October bodies were handed back to their relatives for burial.

Although the Welsh are known for being regular church goers, chapel frequenters, heavily into God, there were in fact 12 congregations within the village. In addition to this, there were 30 preachers/vicars who were present in the village since the disaster.

It was suggested that, with the urgency of a decision that needed to be made and with the variety of religions and choices, that an option should be put on the table to have a mass burial.

  • On Thursday 27 October 1966 81 children were buried in a mass funeral at Aberfan cemetery.

Also buried was the body of one mother who also died with her children. The funeral was a massive event, with over 2000 people attending. Nearly the whole village was there, as well as hundreds of people who had been part of the rescue attempts.

Hundreds of bouquets were received from all around the world - these bouquets and wreaths were laid out in the shape of a cross on the hillside overlooking the graves.

Aberfan Cemetery White Crosses
Aberfan Cemetery White Crosses | Source

There are many reasons why parents chose to have their children buried in the mass burial event. Their children stayed with their playmates, the organisation was easier as there were less awful decisions to be made (at a time when they might also be still awaiting news of other relatives). In the event, this mass burial in one part of the cemetery enabled the village to transform the area into a monument to their Lost Generation.

Aberfan Funeral: 27 October 1966

Mass Funeral Service

It was a cold day when the funeral occurred, in late October. Grieving relatives, under the media's spotlight, wouldn't have wanted to hang around for long. And with 81 hearses, 81 coffins and 81 sets of wreaths to be taken up to the graveyard the whole process took most of the day.

A crowd of close to 5000 people gathered on the hillsides in quiet respect.

The service itself was brief, just 15 minutes long. The first song was Loving shepherd of Thy sheep, accompanied by The Salvation Army band.

There were a few readings, including one by The Bishop of Llandaff and the Lord's Prayer was recited.

Aberfan: The Story of a Disaster, Tony Austin

The second hymn was Jesu Lover of My Soul. This was sung to the tune of 'Aberystwyth' (the national hymn of South Africa) which was composed by local composer Joseph Parry (1841-1903) in 1876 and published first in 1879.

This information is provided in a book by Tony Austin, called "Aberfan: The Story of A Disaster" (pp143-144).

Initially the little graves were covered over and parents could top them with simple wooden crosses. One bereaved father pointed out to a reporter that he's had the cross specially carved by a family member and that he, himself, had made some of the markings. He was proud of how it looked. These wooden crosses are now long gone, I do wonder if the families each took theirs home and kept them.

It was some time before the rows of arches were presented as a fitting solution and memorial to the children who had lost their lives. They then had to be designed, built and installed.

Over the next 40 years or so those graves and the white arches slowly deteriorated and needed a revamp and in 2007 they were given a makeover, using new marble. Now the entire memorial is given an acid wash every two years to keep it shining white.

Money is in a Trust to maintain the graves.

Today the cemetery in Aberfan is signposted for "visitors", as are the Memorial Gardens which are on the site where the school used to stand.

You're as likely to see a 'tourist' at the cemetery as you are to stumble across a survivor, a sibling of a poor departed soul.

This is a place of quiet reflection, so if you do visit, then be mindful of the fact that this is the last resting place of local children that were loved and lost. Don't climb over the graves to get a "great selfie", that's just poor behaviour. Respect their little graves as you'd like the graves of your loved ones to be respected.

RIP.

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