Gravestones tell us much more than the words engraved upon them. Their location, style, and epitaphs demonstrate the status of the people buried in them and those that they left behind.
Fortunately for us, historians have always been fascinated by the monuments erected in memory of the departed, and this means that memorial inscriptions have been recorded so we can still read them today even though the text, and possibly the gravestone itself no longer exist. Weever wrote one of the earliest publications dedicated to monumental inscriptions (Mis), and his own 17th century epitaph reads;
“For whereso’er a ruined tomb he found, His pen hath built it new out of the ground”
Generally speaking, only graves and memorials relating to the nobility have survived before the 16th century as these were in prominent positions within the church, in a vault or separate chantry, whilst graves in churchyards were usually marked by wooden crosses. However, the 18th century saw a boom in the erection of headstones as the rising middle classes emulated the nobility by preserving the memory of their loved ones in stone. They were also a visible sign of the family’s wealth, piety and taste, and the demand for gravestone styles and their wording grew dramatically.
The “Epitaph Writer” was published in 1791 which contained over six hundred entries under the headings “moral, admonitory, humorous and satirical”. These could be personalised according to the attributes of the deceased – this was suggested for a ‘penitent prostitute’;
“By Nature, prone to ev’ry Vice, to Mis’ry swift to run; When Sinners did my Soul entice, I sinn’d – and was undone; But Heav’nly Mercy, great and free, at length of Sin took place, And I became (what you may be), a Monument of Grace.”
The choice of the wording on a headstone may demonstrate the literary prowess of the writer rather than the qualities of the person buried beneath it. Women are often described in terms of their wifely and maternal attributes, with an emphasis on their feminine virtue, as in this extract from the late 17th Century tomb of Lady Digby at Coleshill in Warwickshire;
“….In every condition of life she was a pattern to her sex, appeared mistress of those peculiar qualities that were requisite to conduct her through it with honour”.
Epitaphs usually describe the loving relationship between the persons sharing the grave, but this isn’t always truly accurate. My spinster great aunt is buried with her sister and brother in law, and the plinth bears the words “They walk together in God’s beautiful sunshine”. Perhaps this was added in the hope that they would be on better terms in the afterlife than they were on earth!
At Elford, the tomb of Sir Thomas Arderne and his wife Matilda has the effigies holding hands, and that of Sir William Smyth is flanked by his two wives. However, when “the rambling remains” of John Dale were “laid upon his two wives” (both named Sarah) at Bakewell in the 1730s, his memorial suggests other than marital harmony;
“Here Sarah’s chiding John no longer hears, and Old John’s rambling Sarah no longer fears. A period’s come to all their toilsome lives, the good man’s quiet; still are both his wives.”
Tools of the trade or items associated with the life of the deceased were often engraved on headstones, accompanied by a relevant epitaph, some of which were cleverly contrived to reflect the deceased’s occupation, like that of a Devon watchmaker in the mid 1800s;
“Wound up: in hopes of being taken in hand by his Master, And of being thoroughly cleaned and repaired and set going in the World to come”.
One which I’ve come across in various forms – presumably from a book of epitaphs is dedicated to iron workers;
“My sledge and hammer lie declin’d, my bellows too have lost their wind
My fire’s extinct, my forge decayed, and in the dust my vice is laid.
My coal is spent, my iron’s gone, my nails are drove, my work is done”.
Some occupations lend themselves to rhyme, as with this epitaph to a Brighton shellfish seller:
“At the last day again, how her old eyes will twinkle;
For no more will she cry “Periwinkle! Periwinkle!”.
The imagery and wording on Victorian gravestones are associated with a heavenly reunion, including doves and butterflies, and rosebuds or lambs signify innocence on the gravestones of infants and children. Epitaphs demonstrate the depth of grief suffered by the family, but also the consolation of knowing that the departed had gone to a “better place”. Three children of Samuel and Elizabeth Brown died within a few years of each other, and their gravestone at Aston Parish Church bears separate epitaphs.
That of four-year old Jessie Constance reads:
“Ere sin could harm or sorrow fade, death came with friendly care.
The opening bud to Heaven convey’d and bade it blossom there”.
Family graves can commemorate family members who aren’t actually buried there. Charles Bourne died in Sidcup in 1908, but he was interred in the family grave at Birmingham, and his son, who was buried in Australia in 1933 is memorialised on the headstone. The huge loss of life during the two world wars meant that many service personnel were either buried in a foreign land, or had no known grave, so their names and epitaph may be included on a family gravestone.
A monumental inscription may lead to the discovery of a child who was born and died between census years, and in some instances, stillbirths are recorded, long before their registration began in 1927. The maiden name of a wife and other useful genealogical information may also be engraved, which can help to determine family links before the 1851 census which was the first to define the relationship of residents to the head of the household.
The published and online monumental inscriptions are valuable resources as the vagaries of the weather, time, and vandalism take their toll and as many former church burial grounds are turned to other uses. Unfortunately, all that was written in tablets of stone doesn’t last forever, but thanks to Weever and his successors, epitaphs have been preserved for future generations, and many family history societies, organisations and individuals are continuing to record them today.
Written by Doreen Hopwood