On the search for gravestones old and curious

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On retirement or throttling-back on work, many 60lifers look to spend more time on lifelong interests, or in pursuing new hobbies, like family history, visiting churches,or perhaps a more unusual hobby of visiting a ‘ collection ’ of many cemeteries and curiosities.The latter pastime is often in the cause of providing voluntary help necessary for the preservation and protection of gravestones; the study of people buried in a particular place;tombstone photography;tombstone rubbing and gravestone design, often used as an inspiration by artists,or it may just constitute a good day out in the fresh air walking.

Where have all the gravestones gone? 

For many people interested in their family history, the churchyard or cemetery is the place where they will find the final resting place of an ancestor.Too often today,though, in the UK and probably elsewhere,these places sacred to the memory of the dead are being seriously neglected to dereliction, and in many cases deliberately destroyed for a more earthly and commercial purpose. In this destruction, any number of factors can play a part, including: lack of resources to maintain the graves – there maybe an economic recession; lack of public space; property development interests; public health issues; few surviving relatives to claim “ownership”; and, general apathy in the community. If you are interested in local and family history, a quiet stroll through your local churchyard can be a time for quiet contemplation, and also deep concern that many irreplaceable records of a community’s ancestors will perhaps in a lifespan or less be no more.

It is intriguing therefore to know that the threat to the common gravestone (the memorials and tombs of great houses and cathedrals being classified as under greater protection and outside this present concern) is not a new one. Even a hundred years ago the same concerns were felt by historians. Antiquarian and author,William Thomas Vincent,(President of the Woolwich District Antiquarian Society) wrote in 1896 :

“Books about Tombs there are many, and volumes of Epitaphs by the hundred.But of the Common Gravestones – the quaint and curious, often grotesque, headstones of the churchyard- there is no record.

“These gravestones belong to the past, and are hastening to decay. In one or two centuries none will survive unless they be in museums.To preserve the counterfeit presentment of some which remain seems a duty.

“Many may share the quest,but no one has yet come out to start. Let your servant shew the way.”

In Search of Gravestones Old and Curious

In this way Vincent presented an illustrated account of his many ‘Rambles’ which he had taken with note and sketchbook in hand to many parts of counties in the South of England, including Sussex and Kent to study “the quaint and curious headstones of the churchyard”.

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Quaint and curious headstones

Vincent, the self-styled gravestone rambler, sketched the detail of a great many stones which he found of interest and worthy of recording.He found this to be a fascinating study and a healthy outdoor pursuit and pleasurable hobby. In his time, towards the end of the nineteenth century, the churchyards he visited would predominantly be host to memorials going back to the mid-seventeenth century, after the post-puritan period in England which would not permit of the Burial of the Dead being marked “with graven images”. This was the period of the allegorical gravestone ( see fig.1 below). Today’s graveyard ramblers armed with a digital camera, rather than a sketchpad and a sharp BB pencil, may be hard pressed to discover the curiosities which Vincent was able to find.

Vincent’s rambles took him mainly into the countryside areas of relatively low population compared to the more densely, and considered more sophisticated,areas of the cities.Here, he would find a mixed standard of skill in the headstone craftsmen, more often the works were crudely done and unrestrained but rarely by influential local clergymen in the “illuminated epitaphs” they were allowed to produce.Until late in the eighteenth century or early in the eighteenth century “education and refinement were not thought to be desirable accomplishments in a rustic population”.

Fig 1

inscription below the design reads as follows:"here lyeth the remains of Andrew Brown, who departed this life the 14th day of January 1768, aged 66 years. Also of Mary his wife, who departed this life the 3rd day of July 1802,aged 88 years.
inscription below the design reads as follows:”here lyeth the remains of Andrew Brown, who departed this life the 14th day of January 1768, aged 66 years. Also of Mary his wife, who departed this life the 3rd day of July 1802,aged 88 years.

fig.2

" To the memory of Thomas,the son of Thomas and Ann Alderton, who departed this life the 10th day of April 1767,in the 13th year of his age."
” To the memory of Thomas,the son of Thomas and Ann Alderton, who departed this life the 10th day of April 1767,in the 13th year of his age.”

Vincent found this daring and grotesque.Though crudely displayed, the bereaved parents may have seen some chance of the joy of the resurrection, but could they really have consented to their beloved boy, “cut-down in his brightest hour of life, coffined”, and a skeleton in his grave?

Other common subjects depicted on headstone curiosities that Vincent found were: seraphs,cherubs,clouds and angels,trumpets of both the speaking and the musical kind,skulls and bones, open coffins,and for a chorister a set of organ-pipes.

fig.3

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Professional gravestones

In his collection of gravestones Vincent also gathered a series to the memory of professionals and tradesmen, which perhaps added some relief from the straight “emblems of death and eternity”:

He found memorials, for instance, for :

  • the village blacksmith (depicting tools of trade: anvil,hammer,and so on)
  • carpenter – three compasses,mallet,square,wedge, saw, gimlet,chisel,plane (fig.5)
  • agricultural worker – old fashioned plough
  • bricklayer
  • schoolmaster – obviously well liked by his pupils who had contributed a glowing epitaph (fig.4)
  • gardner/ beekeeper – motif in relief of a beehive

fig.4

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John Cade – schoolmaster

fig.5

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carpenter- with tools of his trade depicted

“This unpretentious work…”

Vincent claimed not to have published his work as anything more than a first collection of churchyard curiosities.His two aims were: firstly to introduce, and encourage the development of, information on what he believed was a new field of antiquarian research that had not been covered elsewhere in books or museums;secondly,he believed that gravestone rambling offered something interesting to a wider audience, and was a new and delightful hobby to be commended – long healthy walks in the countryside,seeing new places, and visiting and looking around interesting English churches.

He left the subject for future generations to decide whether what he believed was right. Today, a version of his hobby is practised. He would be very pleased indeed.

In Search of Gravestones Old and Curious is available at

Amazon.co.uk:

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