Saturday 26 August 2017

Memento Mori - St Lawrence's Churchyard, Eyam

My cemetery creeping activities have been more active than ever this summer. And I confess I find great peace and calm from wandering through graveyards and observing the wildlife, the flora thriving in a truly natural, unfettered way and the legacy of generations summed up in a simple stone.
Recently I have found myself observing more and more closely the designs of gravestones. It is interesting to observe the aesthetics of different ages, the favoured motifs of the day, popular phrases which came and went, strange symbols familiar in a time long since passed but now nothing more than a curious creation on an eroding face of stone.
One strange design which struck me was that of a hand pointing to the sky, surrounded by flowers, holding a scroll with words 'Meet me there', suggesting an eternal reunion together in Heaven. Later the same day at Spittal Cemetery I found an almost identical design, with variations in the scroll wording, the flowers used and shapes within the headstone, but the similarities could be no mere coincidence. I initially assumed these were perhaps by the same stone mason, however further investigation proved this theory incorrect. Then I began to compare the actual inscriptions of the stones and their dates, both late Victorian period (1890's), both men, leaving behind a widow and daughter, who naturally in the order of the grave followed afterwards. The inscriptions on both of the stones are lengthy, and their ornamentation is fine and extensive, suggesting they would have come at quite a cost. Are both of these grave stones towns apart desperate expressions of grief for the loss of the head of the household? Or am I missing the bigger picture of Victorian funerary tradition?

Observing and comparing the various graves from many hundreds of years there are certainly trends and fashions, even in death. Some years the cross was very popular, or a Gothic arch, the Victorians seemed to favour lengthy inscriptions, sometimes even detailing how a person died (my favourite one to date is lightening) and lamenting their woe, yet as time moves on our grave stones become plainer, more uniform and the exuberance fades. The varied sea of stones, some dating back to the great plague, sit like broken teeth jutting in and out of the undulating grass and wild blooms. The ravages of time have spared some, with their proud artistry still intact and preserving the memory of many below, others have been less fortunate, with their twisting and toppling being a slow ballet performed over the ages as the weather wears away names and sentiments of love that are forever lost to time.

I dearly wish we still had the pride and enthusiasm for funerary art that our Victorian predecessors possessed. The time and care that was taken over these designs, the incredible work by stone masons bringing them to life, miniature monuments to a memory, designed to cement their place in history and stand the test of time. Yet the majority of modern monuments in Britain do not have the same detail or dedication displayed as in years gone by, with the concept of design and individuality virtually being eliminated, doesn't choosing the colour of your stone say enough about the deceased? Keep your inscription short and sweet, you're paying by the letter. Lined up neatly like faceless figures, there's something very detached and distant about modern gravestones, which perhaps says just as much about our attitude to death, the morbid and macabre as Victorian headstones said about theirs ...

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