Glossary: Let gravestones tell their stories

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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.

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