Glossary: Let gravestones tell their stories

Share
Related Topics
THE INDEPENDENT's offices are located next to a graveyard, the Nonconformist burial ground of Bunhill Fields, just outside the City of London boundaries. Bunyan, Defoe and Blake are buried here, alongside Isaac Watts, the composer of hymns, and a scattering of minor Cromwells.

Most of the gravestones are almost illegible, the white stone like a mint sucked at by the centuries, but here and there radical attitudes still assert themselves. The gravestone of Thomas Rosewall - 'Tried for High Treason under the Infamous Jeffries State Trial' and, presumably, executed in 1692 - effectively declares that it isn't going to take death lying down.

My favourite grave, though, is that of Dame Mary Page, 'Relict of Sir Gregory Page, Bart'. She has a tomb to herself, rather grander than most, one side of which soberly1 delivers names and dates and the other side of which passes on some gossip. 'In 67 months', it reads, 'she was tap'd 66 times, Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation'.

I love this gravestone - for its wishful thinking about poor Mary's fortitude and for the human curiosity with which it passes on the astonishing statistic. There is an attempt at moral tuition there, a suggestion that she might provide an enduring example of endurance, but it can't really disguise the gruesome fascination with the details. Four gallons a time, you think. Did she slosh when she walked around?

I assume that such an inscription wouldn't meet with the approval of the Reverend Stephen Brian, whose refusal to allow the words 'dad' and 'grandad' on a headstone resulted in an appeal to a consistory court by the grieving family. The court, in a victory for the priggish and the petty, upheld the vicar's ban, incidentally provoking a day of Trollopian ecclesiastical comedy, as senior churchmen tried to defend the decision.

The Bishop of Peterborough got thoroughly muddled on the BBC's The World at One, arguing that a graveyard was 'a good place for going for a walk when you're feeling down . . . if you'd just been jilted or lost all your money', and that its consoling powers would somehow be lessened by offensive terms of endearment.

Quite why a succession of anodyne ledger entries would restore your mood more effectively than evidence of the long continuity of human affection I don't quite understand. For the bishop, it seems, gravestones are not for relatives who want some memorial of their loved ones, but tranquillisers for the depressives of the future. Keep taking the tablets, he suggests, but you'll find that the ones with 'Mum' inscribed on them just don't work as well.

Later in the day the Bishop of St Albans, perhaps warned by Peterborough's example, made a valiant effort to say nothing substantive at all and succeeded pretty well. 'My sympathies are with the vicar,' he murmured. What about sympathy for the family, retorted his interviewer indignantly. 'Well, quite,' replied the bishop gnomically.

The impression given was of a church that is embarrassed by human feeling and squeamish of human sentiment, not large enough in its charity to see that 'dignity' needn't just be a matter of formal diction. Thomas Gray, a poet with some very pertinent things to say about the snobbery engendered by graveyards, once remarked that 'the language of the age is never the language of poetry'. He was proved wrong, as it happens, but that patrician distaste with ordinary speech can still be heard in the debate over gravestones.

For the Bishop of Peterborough a graveyard is a sort of poem - a long, boring one, set on moral improvement and delivered in a pasteurised diction. For him it is a memento mori, never a memento mummy and to that end its inhabitants must be enlisted into the regiments of the unnumbered dead, their uniform epitaphs2 the equivalent of the conscript's shaven head, a rebuke to illusions of individuality.

I would prefer to think of a graveyard as something less pompous - a chronicle of the times perhaps, which attests both to the endurance of human personality (these are feelings we can recognise or smile at hundreds of years later) and to its transitory3 nature (the people who felt these things are long gone and their mourners, too).

I can just about imagine headstones that would test the limits of my tolerance (a friend suggested one carved in the shape of Mr Blobby, which would probably unite all sides of the argument) but it's difficult to see why all evidence of character and the quirks of tenderness have to be wiped from the slate, unless the Church is engaged in an act of falsification. It is in effect the promotion of a lie, a suggestion that because we're all equal in death then we're pretty much the same in life. We're not, and graveyards should honestly celebrate the fact.

1 From the Latin sobrius, the opposite of ebrius, drunk.

2 From the Greek epitaphion, from epi, upon and taphos, a tomb.

3 From the Latin transitorius, having or allowing passage through, thus a passing thing.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Most powerful woman in British politics

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
All the major parties are under pressure from sceptical voters to spell out their tax and spending plans  

Yet again, the economy is the battleground on which the election will be fought

Patrick Diamond
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders