As the UK went into its first lockdown last March, Norman Zide found himself furloughed and wondered how he could occupy his mind.
Deciding that he would like to give something back to the community, he started a cemetery restoration project in Darnall – the place where he was born.
Norman said: “I could have easily been affected by depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, having no motivation or interest in things, feeling hopeless and helpless, continuous low mood or sadness.
“I had made a conscious decision not to go down that road but to occupy my mind. I knew that working voluntarily has its benefits. As well as keeping fit, it also stimulates the mind and body.”
Norman felt Darnall ‘needed something’ due to its ‘run down’ state, and the cemetery idea proved popular.
He set up the Darnall Cemetery group on Facebook, which has now attracted over 700 members.
He said: “The community group started to grow slowly, then it took off and just snowballed.”
Two further groups have since been created for Tinsley Park Cemetery and Attercliffe Cemetery.
Darnall and Attercliffe was previously referred to as Attercliffe-cum-Darnall because of its historical links, and families often have deceased relatives in all cemeteries in the area for that reason.
The Darnall Cemetery, Tinsley Park Cemetery and Attercliffe Cemetery groups all have the same aim and total around 1,500 members combined.
Some members live within Darnall, Tinsley and Attercliffe, but others live much further afield, having found the group as a result of one of their distant ancestors being discovered.
Volunteers who live locally help tidy the grounds to make the cemetery a nicer place for people to visit.
Norman described how Darnall Cemetery had now been transformed for the better.
He said: “A year ago, it was a cold, lost and lonely place. Now we’ve painted the gates, cleared the paths and litter picked. It looks so different.”
As well as carrying out physical maintenance work, members from the groups research people’s family history.
They use social media to help locate the relatives of individuals who have passed, whose headstones have seemingly been forgotten.
The headstone of George Littlewood was recently rediscovered in Darnall Cemetery and a distant relative of his was traced through research by members.
George was known as the ‘Sheffield flyer’, as he was a champion marathon runner and walker in the 1800s, with World Championship belts to his name.
Money is now being raised by different groups in a bid to restore George’s headstone.
Members of a local running club, based at the English Institute of Sport, along with others, were said to be delighted on hearing that the grave had been re-discovered, and are now planning fundraising activities.
Norman has described the cemetery groups – an equal mix of men and women – as ‘brilliant’ and he is looking forward to lockdown lifting so more members can meet in person.
He reiterated that people do not have to carry out physical activities with the group to be involved – people can simply join to get some fresh air or to have a chat.
Norman hopes to take the project further in years to come and make it sustainable.
Storage space for tools and equipment is currently split between three locations in Darnall, Tinsley and Attercliffe, but the space is now being outgrown.
Norman told how although the Bereavement Services have been helpful, a larger storage facility somewhere between Darnall and Tinsley would be ideal.
He would also like to have running water in the cemetery and more rubbish bins.
There are plans to create a cafe in Tinsley in the future and possibly a place for people to reminisce over Darnall memorabilia.
In the short space of a year, Norman has seen how successful such a community project can be, not only for himself, but for many others too.
He said: “I would urge anyone not feeling too good to get involved in a community project or to start something up that a dwindling community really needs or requires.
“I would like to offer a most sincere thank you to the community of this project for all your efforts, kind words, donations of whatever that might be, dedication, commitment, etc.”
A year on from its formation, members of the Darnall Cemetery group have praised Norman for helping bring the community together.
Jacqueline Simmonite described how he had connected people from far and wide.
And Kay Beaumont commented on how Norman had “made an impact on a lot of lives and made a big difference to our cemeteries”.
Sue Martin added that it was an amazing thing for Norman to do in such difficult times, and that the cemeteries and the community were lucky to have him in the driving seat.
Norman said he was surprised to hear such comments but it had driven him to do more.
He added: “I am humbled. I’m trying to keep my feet on the ground, maintain momentum, just keep going.”
A litter pick was held at Darnall Cemetery on Saturday with members of the council and police also invited.
For more information about the Darnall Cemetery group, see here.