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With the Coronavirus lockdowns of 2020/2021 many of us have had to find our pleasures closer to home than usual.  One of my favourite past-times has been visiting some of my local graveyards and taking a leisurely stroll amongst the tombstones and monuments.

Overgrown urban cemeteries and churchyards provide a haven for nature, an escape from the bustle of the modern world, and respite from the claustrophobia of a national lockdown. Often protected from traffic and pollution, and hidden from sight behind high walls, they can easily be overlooked by passers by. Yet within those high walls you can find butterflies dancing on delicate wildflowers, squirrels sheltering in the branches of ancient trees and foxes hiding amongst the tangled brambles.  Cemeteries are also steeped in cultural history and rich in public art, with elaborate memorials and tombs, describing a rich and varied iconography of death and remembrance. I will be doing a separate post on some of the common cemetery symbols found on headstones.

As the subject of burial and funeral monuments is a vast one, this article will be by nature selective, focusing mainly on traditional Christian burial practices found in mainly English cemeteries and churchyards. However, it is important to note that there are also many examples of different regional styles and practices as well as those of other faiths, all of which can also be found in our historic graveyards.

Bluebells at Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle upon Tyne

A very brief history of traditional British cemeteries and their monuments

Romans, Saxons and Medieval burial

Many British churchyards sit on much older pre-Christian burial grounds, and may contain remnants of those earlier times, occasionally these remnants can be seen today. It has been suggested that the Romans may have invented (or at least developed the idea of) the headstone as we know it [1]. The Roman tombstone below (L) can be found in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Washington, Tyne and Wear, and does look remarkably similar to later headstones.

Medieval churchyards did not contain many stone grave markers, so were ideal places for community activities such as fairs and village games (until the puritans put a stop to jollity, that is). Often the only stone monument was a large cross, although many of these were destroyed during the Reformation of the sixteenth century [2]. The example below (M) is the Mercian Cross, a Saxon cross from the eighth-tenth centuries, which can be found in St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire. In this period, only those of very high status would merit an individual burial and memorial, many people would expect to end up in a charnel house. Initially ‘wet’ bodies (i.e. fresh, fleshy bodies) were stored in stone coffins until they decomposed and became ‘dry’ (i.e. bones). The bones would then be stacked in the charnel house. The stone coffins below (R) can be seen at Tynemouth Priory, Tyne and Wear. If you were wondering where the corpse liquor went, some stone coffins also contained a hole to let it drain out [3].

From pomp and purgatory to the resurrection men

Richard Flemings Tomb at Lincoln Cathedral
Richard Fleming’s tomb and chantry chapel, Lincoln Cathedral.

Our relationship with the dead has changed over time. Purgatory as an actual place was introduced as a concept from the late twelfth/early thirteenth centuries. This lead to a drive to encourage the living to ease the passage of the deceased through purgatory with prayer. Gruesome monuments, such as Cadaver Tombs, (which depicted the deceased as rotting corpses) were often linked to chantry chapels to elicit prayers for the dead. This provided the living a sense of moral and religious satisfaction while assisting the dead towards  salvation [4, 5]. Other, less macabre tomb monuments, called gisants, emphasised the earthly status of the deceased, showed them in fine regalia, as if in prayer or sleeping.

Gisant monument for Sir Ralph Grey and his wife, 1443, St Peter's church, Chillingham, Northumberland
The Gisant style monument for Sir Ralph Grey (d1443) and his wife, Elizabeth. St Peter’s church, Chillingham, Northumberland.

While most people in the medieval period were buried in unmarked graves, tombs or memorials of the great and (often not so) good were sighted inside churches and the higher the status of the deceased, the closer to the altar (and God) they would be placed. In later times this also protected the dead from body snatchers. This resulted in some very dubious practices, such as at Enon Chapel in London, where cut price burials resulted in the dead being piled up to the rafters in a tiny crypt, in order to line the pockets of the rapacious minister.   In the past, these intramural burials in churches were notorious for causing a bit of a stink (and worse in the case of Enon chapel), but such burials can result in problems even today. Recently, the floor of Bath Abbey, which is paved with ledger stones, flat grave markers, was restored to stop the floor sinking into the cavities caused by the decayed bodies beneath. (Somerset Live).

The Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century, which made the concept of purgatory redundant for many, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that ousted the party-pooping puritans, combined with a rising class of wealthier farmers and merchants, created a sea-change in funeral monuments. From the end of the seventeenth century churchyards begin to fill up with tombstones, recording personal status, family ties, occupation and epitaphs, as well as some very macabre iconography [6].

As with burials inside the church, burials outside had their pecking order. Burial on the east side of a churchyard was preferred, with the body facing east in order to rise on the day of judgement. Burial on the north side was reserved for the illegitimate, criminals, suicides and strangers, and was therefore a less favourable location [7]. There is a wonderful description of this in MR James’s The Ash Tree, the executed witch, Mrs Mothersole, is said to have been buried on ‘that unhallowed side of the building‘. In some areas these ‘undesirable’ burials would take place outside the church yard itself or the corpse would have to be unceremoniously bundled over the wall of the churchyard, after being refused the usual welcome by the vicar at the lych-gate [8].

While post mortem social status was a pressing issue for some, from the late eighteenth century, body snatchers were a real fear for many. This was the case right up until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 (which solved the problem of supply of cadavers for the anatomists table by co-opting the corpses of the poor and destitute). To protect the dearly departed from such ‘resurrection men’ elaborate precautions were put in place and they can still be found in some graveyards today.

Image by https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/0a/b0/95f14983a9a287f3932cd1e71806.jpgGallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0010462.htmlWellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-24): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/b2gb3sp8 CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36452434

Famous examples of post mortem protection can be found in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh which boasts a very fine mortsafe.  While the infamous Burke and Hare may have preferred to obtain their bodies by seeking out ‘future corpses'[9] in the drinking dens of the old Town, many others were stealing corpses from graveyards to supply Edinburgh’s famous medical schools. 

Mort safes in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

Tombstone trends

As more people were able to afford permanent grave markers, churchyards began to fill up and certain styles of headstone became popular. Headstones began short and stout, gradually becoming taller and less chunky as the centuries progressed – although this could depend on the quality of the local stone. More elaborate ornamentation and inscriptions became popular, however, the execution of the design could depend on the skill of the mason, many of whom may have been illiterate, as is seen below.

The examples above, from St Andrew’s, Newcastle, and Tynemouth Priory, Tynemouth, show eighteenth century grave stones with the text cramped together, of uneven size, and occasionally with words broken over lines. The example on the right also shows some naïve attempts at decoration.

The size difference between the early 18th Century gravestone on the left, and the nineteenth century one on the right. St Peter’s Church, Chillingham.

These headstones were often in three parts – decoration at the top, details about the deceased (names, dates, occupation, family ties) then an epitaph or scriptural quote at the bottom. Some stones also have the mason’s name as well.

These earlier grave stones had their inscriptions facing away from the actual burial plot, and some had a ‘body stone’ covering the burial, or a small ‘footstone’ indicating the length of the grave. In some cases the direction of the headstone was reoriented by the Victorians. The Victorians often marked the limits of a grave or family plot using kerbstones or railings [10].

As the times changed, so did decorative motifs, one of the most notable metamorphosis being that of the infamous grinning skull and crossbones. This first evolved into a flying head before morphing into a chubby cheeked cherub (a more sentimental, but no less disquieting images, to my mind).

Seventeenth and early eighteenth century skull and crossbones motifs, usually found in the top section of decoration, acted as a memento mori, reminding the living that they too would soon be dust (so they should behave themselves and lead good lives). This tradition evolved into flying faces, which symbolised the soul flying up to heaven, and later still, in the late Georgian and Victorian period, morphed into flying angels/cherubs, symbolising innocence (they were often used on the graves of children [11].

The taste for the macabre in graveyard symbols lingered well into the eighteenth century, but by the closing decades, tombstones could be found with tranquil classical iconography, in keeping with Georgian taste for all things ancient Roman and Greek. 

Late eighteenth century tombstone with classical motifs, St Andrew’s, Newcastle.

By the nineteenth century, it was the rising urban middle classes who drove the developments of tombstone designs.  Huge gothic follies, classical urns and columns sprouted up across the land. Crosses and Angels as grave markers even made a come-back, shunned after the Reformation and centuries of anti-Catholic feeling in England, they underwent a renaissance in the nineteenth century and can be found in abundance in many Victorian cemeteries. 

Victorian Gothic, the funerary monument of the Reed family, at Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle.

The Civic minded Victorians also came up with the concept of the Garden Cemetery, situated in the suburbs, laid out like parks and dotted with attractive grave monuments, these cemeteries not only addressed the problems of overfull and unsanitary urban burial grounds, but made a visit to the grave of a loved one into a pleasurable day out [12]. 

The Victorians also helped to democratise death, through their more industrialised production techniques, machine cutting inscriptions, standardised patterns, and a budget range of guinea graves, and community burial clubs. As the nineteenth century progressed more and more people could have a permanent marker to meet their budget. The downside of this was that the idiosyncratic and personal memorials of earlier times were often replaced with standard shapes, such as the ubiquitous lancet gravestone,  and more generic  religious or moral sentiments. Of course, this doesn’t meant that the families and friends of the departed grieved any less, only that the outward language of death and the business of burial had become more of an industry [13, 14].

The ubiquitous lancet headstones found in Victorian cemeteries across Britain.

New materials also played their part, with machine cut inscriptions, lead lettering and occasional iron headstones (very appropriate for such an industrial age).

This unusual but appropriate iron headstone was chosen for William Crawford, an Iron Founder, and can be found in Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle. Unfortunately, it has weathered badly.

The twentieth century saw the mass death of the First World War, with Cenotaphs, empty tombs, for recording the deaths of millions, and many soldiers buried on foreign shores.  You can find the occasional pristine war grave, striking in its simple poignancy, amongst the unruly ivy clad headstones of a previous era. However, it was inevitable that death on such an industrial scale, with so many families left grieving without a body to bury, would cause a fundamental change in how the dead were commemorated, World War I was the beginning of the end of the lavish Victorian way of death. 

Today, in Britain, cremation far outstrips burial, nevertheless, you can still find some unique and personal grave monuments on occasion. A particularly poignant example can be found in Westgate Crematorium in Newcastle, where a huge black marble edifice stands for a young man, dead before his time, and which includes a marble motorbike. While this may not be to every ones taste, it is a unique and very personal memorial.

St Peter's church, Wallsend.
There has been a church on this site since the 12th Century, St Peter’s church was rebuilt in 1809 and remodelled in 1892. Wallsend, North Tyneside.

Who lies beneath

Cemeteries are filled with the famous and not so famous, all with their individual tales that remind us that these mossy and ivy cloaked monuments hid the bones of people just like us, who lived and loved and sometimes suffered.

Dame Mary Page, 1729, Bunhilll, London

Grave monuments could be very personal in the eighteenth century, one could say, too personal, as this famous monument to Dame Mary Page at Bunhill cemetery in London demonstrates. The unfortunate Dame Mary died in 1729, the inscription describes her final years “In 67 months she was tap’d [tapped] 66 times, Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation.”

The Keenleyside Monument, 1841/2, Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle

This canopied monument featuring a reclining cherub rests beneath mature trees in Jesmond Old Cemetery and hides a terrible family tragedy. The monument was erected by Thomas William and Louisa Keenleyside in memory of their children, Eleanor, 2 years old, Charles, 12 years old, and James who was 10 years old. The children died in quick succession between December 1841 to January 1842, victims of the Cholera epidemic that raged through the city. Epidemics and other diseases such as scarlet fever were common in the Victorian period, and could rip through a family taking siblings one after another. It is hard to comprehend how Thomas and Louisa came to terms with this heart wrenching loss, although this monument may have been part of that process.

Tom Sayers, 1865, Highgate Cemetery, London

You would be forgiven for thinking this monument in London’s Highgate Cemetery was the grave of a large dog, but in fact is commemorates Tom Sayers, Victorian superstar prize-fighting bare-knuckle boxer, who died in 1865. Sayers had a turbulent personal life, so the chief mourner at his funeral was his mastiff, Lion, who rode alone in a pony cart behind the hearse. Sayers kept the hound next to him even in death, and Lion was immortalised by sculptor Morton Edwards and forms the most prominent feature of Sayers monument [15].

Epilogue

For me, the apogee of cemetery design came in the nineteenth century, when over-crowded, unsanitary urban cemeteries, such as Bunhill Fields, were replaced with leafy suburban garden cemeteries.  Highgate cemetery, Abney Park and Kensal Green were intended as pleasure grounds as much as for memorialising the dead.  Recently, I have spent many hours exploring my local cemeteries and churchyards, discovering fascinating facts about my area – the pastoral poet buried in the centre of Newcastle, the Georgian composer, organist and music critic buried in St Andrews, as well as countless ordinary people, whose lives flicker before us briefly in their epitaphs.

Ledger stone for eighteenth century Newcastle composer and organist Charles Avison. Avison died in 1770, but the ledger stone was replaced in the nineteenth century.

The Coronavirus pandemic has claimed so many lives, however, once the pandemic itself has entered into the pages of history, I hope that we will not forget the quite pleasures of walking in these public gardens of the past and experiencing that fleeting connection with those who have gone before us.

All Saints, Newcastle.

Part 2 will look at the meaning behind some of the symbols found on headstones.

Sources

Cohen, Kathleen, 1973, Metamorphosis of a death symbol

King, Pamela, 1987, Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England

Morgan, Alan, 2004, Beyond the Grave, Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds

Ross, Peter, 2020, A Tomb With a View, The Stories and Glories of Graveyards

Rutherford, Sarah, 2008, The Victorian Cemetery

Snider, Tui, 2017, Understanding Cemetery Symbols

Victorian Web, Funerary monument to Thomas Sayers (1826-1865), Western Cemetery, Highgate, London N.6. (victorianweb.org)

Yorke, Trevor, 2017, Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials

Notes

  1. Alan Morgan, Beyond the Grave, Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds
  2. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  3. ibid
  4. Pamela King, Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England
  5. Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a death symbol
  6. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  7. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  8. Peter Ross, A Tomb with a View, The Stories and Glories of Graveyards
  9. The Order of the Good Death (death positive movement)
  10. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  11. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  12. Sarah Rutherford, The Victorian Cemetery
  13. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  14. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  15. Victorian Web, Funerary monument to Thomas Sayers

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