Hawarden churchyard

What is the collective noun for gravestone?

‘A cemetery?’, I hear you suggest. Still not the same thing.

‘A burial ground, a churchyard, a row, a plot?’, all along the same lines as ‘cemetery’

My response is ‘no, these simply won’t do.’ Here’s why.

The above suggestions are all descriptions of the spaces in which multiple gravestones may occur. They are not exclusively descriptions of collections of gravestones since these terms refer to so much else that they might contain alongside gravestones: paths, gates, boundary walls and fences, trees, bushes, flowerbeds, benches, bins etc

Also, they do not describe all of the collective fashions and associations in which gravestones regularly find themselves?

Gravestones might be part of an association in the stonemason’s yard, in the cemetery in regular plots or subsequently reused and relocated in a range of other locations, including beside churchyard walls, as paving material etc.

Long after their use, disuse and dislocation, gravestones can be reassembled into new arrangements in a variety of ways.

In other words, memorials are individually complex, having biographies of use and reuse as new names are added, they are restored, repaired, relocated and replaced. Together, their complexities are even greater, and their associations can shift and fluctuate. So what do you call the collective what they not only accumulate, but are dragged around and rearranged into pathways, or placed alongside churchyard walls, or situated into strange new arrangements?

Rearrangement of old gravestones: Hawarden churchyard

My point is simple; we lack a clear and coherent discussion in mortuary archaeology and other ‘mortality’ – related subjects regarding how to describe in collective terms the most common of our memorial forms. We treat each as a separate ‘type’ and we have the plural ‘gravestones’ and ‘memorials’ but these don’t give a sense of the spatial and physical association of gravestones and other memorials with each other.

In other words, we lack a collective noun that adequately gives a sense of the nature of memorials in open-air settings or within cathedrals and churches. Hence, we often overlook how they speak to the viewer and speak to each other through their locations, materialities, form, decoration and texts and through their biographies of use and reuse.

Let’s start from scratch and try to be a bit more imaginative shall we?

If I were going to select more poetic collective nouns, why not think of gravestones as animals that ‘herd’ and ‘flock’? This is a fun exercise, but it is not fruitless. Simply looking to the Wikipedia table of collective nouns for wildlife, we find a few alternative suggestions. Here are some of my favourites:

  • swarm (bees) – I like this for gravestones: it gives a feeling of the business, the interpolation, the closeness and the collectivity of cemeteries and burial grounds
  • intrusion (cockroaches) – provides a sense of the vertical interventions of grave-cuts associated with the raising of gravestones
  • lamentation (swans) –  evokes how gravestones voice the losses of the living as much as honour the dead
  • convocation (eagles) – presents to me the sense of a dialogue between gravestones – affording a sense of communication between those designing successive memorials
  • mustering (storks) – clearly this brings to mind how gravestones come together as an accumulation over time
  • chattering or murmuration (starlings) – I like this because it evokes the sense of multiple voices all calling out to the viewer and reader, sometimes so loud and varied that it is almost impossible to focus upon the message of the individual memorial
  • tribe ( sparrows) – this brings forth the sense of a human collective: a population within the churchyard, cemetery or burial ground
  • memory (elephants) – now this is theoretically very useful; providing a sense of how memory does not simply inhere within the texts upon memorials, but through their collective association, accumulation and reconfiguration.
  • tower (giraffes) – this one works for me, especially in thinking about the vertically competitive Victorian memorials of suburban cemeteries.

    Memorials over cremation graves situated alongside the outside of the original churchyard wall, Hawarden churchyard
  • array (hedgehogs) – evoking the sense of the many dimensions by which memorials stick out, topple and tilt, bristling upwards from the earth in tightly packed multitudes.
  • mess (iguanas) – the military allusions are not irrelevant to gravestones – the sense of martial collectivity in death is a key feature of war cemeteries. Then again, many cemeteries, despite careful management, do appear a ‘mess’; a random collection of tastes and designs competing with each other.
  • scold (jays) – with their memento mori, some collections of early gravestones do almost admonish the viewer in religious terms.
  • exaltation (larks) – more than the ‘chattering’ collective noun, gravestones to exalt, reach up and reaching out with words in praise of not only the dead, but of the Almighty
  • labour (moles) – this is very apposite given the subterranean foundations of gravestones, their relationships with graves and their corporeal contents, but also the fact that fresh graves do have mounds of earth like molehills upon them. Also appropriate, since gravestones are key constituents of ‘memory work’, regularly habits of visitation by which memory is perpetuated, at least for a while after the loved one’s death
  • ostentation (peacocks) or dazzle (zebras) – gravestones are all about display by and for the dead, by and for the living. We can all think of many ‘peacock’ and ‘zebra’ gravestones….
  • congregation (plovers) – in a very real sense, for churchyards and chapel burial grounds, gravestones evoke the Sunday congregation of the parish/community, memorialised collectively through time
  • drift (sheep) – this one I like for the sense of movement it creates; gravestones look permanent but they are always on the move – shifting over time and expanding over space. The fixed walls of a cemetery try to give boundaries to this fluidity, but those are often breached and burial grounds appended and augmented.
  • phalanx (storks) – the military allusions in the regularity of some cemeteries is sometimes warranted, and sometimes it has direct meaning when we are indeed looking at a war cemetery in which the memorials to personnel serving in different wars, in different services, regiments etc, and sometimes for different nations, are drawn together into a military regularity of the parade ground.
Rearranged side-to-side memorials, Hawarden churchyard

Just to make it clear, I am not advocating the use of any of these in academic or popular use. Indeed, I doubt if any of these terms will enter into regular use by scholars investigating the association of gravestones. Yet, the very fact we are thinking about different collective nouns itself has a function, raising the profile of how gravestones operate, not as atomised memorials to individuals, and not as repetitive and anonymous collectives, but in the commemorative space in between. This is because I think the qualities and power of the contexts and cumulative relationships between memorials raised at different times for different people still gets overlooked by the limitations of language to describe them.

You may sneer and dismiss this musing. Still, from an archaeological perspective, we can be dull but honest, and renounce these more evocative suggestions and go for one sure one that, within it, embodies the many rich connections between memorials over time and space whether found in churches, cathedrals or elsewhere in the wider landscape. It is a term that allows us to talk about many of the qualities of gravestones evoked by the other collective nouns suggested above. It is so very, very familiar and so seldom utilised in discussing gravestones:

An assemblage…