The graveyard is enclosed on one side by the original St Matthew's Church, which dates back to 1839. Many of the older graves have been lost over time but the oldest remaining grave dates back to 1685. The graveyard saw mass burials during the cholera and typhus epidemics of 1832-47.
While no longer an active cemetery, residents can choose to have their ashes scattered in the Garden of Rest (located by the left-hand interior wall), connecting the living population of the Shankill Road to the history of those buried in the graveyard. There are many graves of note to be found in this graveyard and they reflect the expansive history of the Shankill Road.
There are many interesting and unique graves and memorials in the graveyard. For more information on the Graveyard visit Belfast City Council's Website.
The remains of the Watch House still stand within Shankill Graveyard and serve as a reminder of the macabre roots of modern medicine. Watch Houses were built in response to the actions of ‘Resurrection Men’: men who dug up newly buried bodies and sold them to anatomy schools for dissection. Men would stand watch during the night, hoping to ward off the grave robbers and protect their dead loved ones.
Prior to the Anatomy Act of 1832 the main legal source of bodies was that of convicted and executed criminals. In 1832 a law was introduced to allow the dissection of a body to which the surgeon had lawful possession, sometimes unclaimed bodies or those donated by a next of kin in exchange for the cost of the burial.
The Story of Burke and Hare is a gruesome tale. Recognising the demand for fresh bodies and the growing challenge of successful grave robbery, Ulstermen William Burke and William Hare took matters into their own hands. Over 10 months in 1828, Burke and Hare murdered 16 people and sold their corpses to anatomist Dr Robert Knox.
Upon detection, both were arrested and charged with the capital offence of murder. Hare, in exchange for immunity, testified against Burke, who was found guilty and hanged in January 1829. In a final irony, Burke's body was given over to the anatomy department of Edinburgh University for a public dissection and his skeleton can still be seen at the Anatomy Museum in Edinburgh.
Understood to be the first victim of sectarian violence in Belfast. During a riot in 1864 John Murdoch was shot and killed while attempting to protect another person from being shot. The stone reads:
“When party spirits fiercely raged,
And angry discord roamed abroad,
Our friend and brother was shot down,
From Earth removed to face his God”
By artist John Cassidy, this statue was originally located at the Queen Victoria Royal Jubilee Schools in Durham Street, before being moved to the graveyard in 2003. It was carved from Portland stone in 1897 to celebrate the queen's diamond jubilee and shows her wearing an intricate dress of Nottingham lace.
Belfast was heavily bombed during a series of German air raids in April and May 1941. Belfast sustained considerable losses, over 900 casualties and 1,500 injured which, outside of the City of London, was the greatest loss of life in a night raid during the Blitz.
The memorial in the Shankill Graveyard pays respect, not only to the loss of life, but also to the skills and hard work of the Belfast workers who rebuilt the city after this devastation. The memorial is built in red Belfast Brick, topped with granite and designed to look like the chimney of a house.
One of the graves, erected by James Bradford for his wife Mary, is typical of a Victoria headstone, etched with the following poem;
“Stop your foot and cast an eye
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Prepare for Death and follow me”