Churchyards never cease to fascinate me. While historians and art-historians pay a lot of their attention looking at the inscriptions and the exceptional monuments to the great and good, as an archaeologist I am equally interested in the more ubiquitous and humble memorials and formulaic inscriptions of the artisan, the spinster, the grandson, the labourer, the mother and the infant. I am equally attentive to the absences; many people never received memorials at all; some parts of churchyards were reserved for pauper’s graves, whilst others had modest timber memorials that have not preserved very well.
There is more to interest the archaeologist in the churchyard than simply graves-stones and grave-covers. Every churchyard I go to is unique in its location, size and relationship with the church, its spatial organisation and development, as well as the arrangement and management of its paths and vegetation.
Obviously each observer notices (and in my case, misses) different things. Still, I often search out for particular trends and features. For individual memorials I am not simply interested in the oldest memorials, but a variety of other themes, including antique allusions. I am also interested in the materials used for memorials, their state of preservation (not necessarily just good, but those memorials with interesting fractures, traces of conservation etc) and their spatial arrangements.
Looking beyond individual memorials, I try to pick out patterns and structures in the arrangement of particular zones of cemetery space; for here too there are interesting patterns between sites and apparent changes over time in the average size, material, form and ornament of memorials. Being a mortuary archaeologist interested in churchyard memorials and spaces, one has to be interested in material culture but also in landscape.
In previous blogs I discussed the intramural monuments and memorials at Dyserth church, Flintshire and the exceptionally well-preserved and early table-tombs and canopied tombs in the churchyard. Here I want to discuss some of the themes that interest me about the far-more-common nineteenth, twentieth and early twenty-first century monuments, using this churchyard as an example of how my approach is shared, and differs, from others.
I am fascinated by cases of long-lived memorials that seem to always receive an extended lease of life. Dyserth, like most churchyards, exhibits the banality of equating memorials with a single individual or indeed a single generation. There are heaps of examples of memorials that are used and reused over generations.
Urning your Rest
I am currently fascinated by the ubiquitous use of the urn in graveyard commemoration as a symbol of mourning and the eternal soul (are there other symbolic messages? Do get in touch and let me know). Here are a few examples from Dyserth, including some quite later ones.
Wood and Wooden Skeuomorphs
Most gravestones are …. stone… yet wooden memorials were probably widespread in the medieval and early modern past. Yet at Dyserth there are examples of not only wooden memorials, but also the power of trees as a symbolic medium in grave memorialisation. I am a particular fan of early twentieth-century tree-like skeuomorphs – taking the widespread vegetal and floral themes of most gravestones to a whole new level.
Whether due to weather, time, vandalism, faults in the original stone selected, or any other reason, many memorials show signs of serious wounds and assaults.
A further dimension to churchyard memorials I haven’t seen much discussed is traces of their management and removal: ‘dying’ memorials. Some of these are in better nick than the wounded memorials, but they have been marked for death. At Dyserth I noticed a series of memorials with hazard tape around them, and others arranged in piles around trees and against boundaries of the churchyard. These half-dead, or dying, memorials are still integral elements of churchyards and yet are clearly ‘on their way out’, dislocated from their original positions and associations.
Another theme that interests me in churchyards is the interpolation of old memorials with new ones, creating a strange juxtaposition of very old nineteenth-century and very fresh twenty-first century memorials.
And last but not least, let’s hear it for the humble attempts to define the grave-plot. A trend that often leaves little trace. Since the early twentieth century, there is no longer the fashion for low kerb monuments – not only are they difficult to maintain, but also they are rarely easily legible.
I could go on… so I will. A final theme are memorials to the extension and dedication of churchyards themselves. At Dyserth there is a memorial plaque built into the churchyard boundary commemorating its extension to the east to cater for ever more dead bodies.
And finally (again), some general shots of the churchyard, showing how different plots of different eras look, from the nineteenth century to recent times.