Don’t wake the dead! Mortuary selfie for absolutely no good reason other than it seemed appropriate at the time and it reminds me of my own immortality

I love Gresford church. Situated in Wrexham borough, it is a complex and long-term place of worship with many dimensions to its commemorative history. Today, I visited the church and churchyard with my current MA Archaeology of Death and Memory students. We hoped to use Gresford as a case study of the complex interaction of space and materiality in the commemoration of the dead and the writing and rewriting of the history of place.

Atropos and her shears of doom

The past is navigated through architecture and monuments at Gresford.

Inside is a single piece of Roman sculpture is on display, uncovered near the east of the church, displaying the goddess Atropos with her shears. It is tempting to regard this as a fragment of mortuary monument given her role in cutting the threads of life.

There are medieval effigies and grave-slabs, fabulous early modern monuments and a range of solid and interesting eighteenth- and nineteenth-century memorials. We discussed how many of these memorials are likely to have been rearranged and reused during their life-histories.

Add to this the porch war memorials: those of the parish lost in the First and Second World Wars facing each other and confronting all those entering the church and we have a microcosm of many of the commemorative trends of the last millennium distilled into one building.

If that isn’t enough, there is the churchyard. Towards the south-east are a collection of the oldest, late 18th and early 19th-century, smaller gravestones, rearranged to create a collective display. Later, there are many 19th-century table and chest tombs, some still surrounded by elaborate iron railings. Monumental grave-slabs made of local sandstone can be explored, also dating from the 19th century. Their reuse during the twentieth century as kerbs, borders and paving is equally intriguing, for respect is afforded to their texts despite their dislocation.

Memorials do not persist long into the twentieth century at Gresford church – the most recent date to the 1910s and 1920s. Only far more recently (see below) have the dead come back into the churchyard through the interment of cremated remains.

For the unburned dead, a new extension to the churchyard was opened one field away to the south in the 1920s. Here we find a memorial building and a cemetery with the earliest graves dating to the early 1920s and the most recent dating to 2014.

Gresford is an example of cemetery memorial switchback for the cremated dead: while the churchyard has few new memorials, memorials over cremation burials have re-entered the churchyard since the 1980s. Indeed, Gresford is an example of cremated double-switchback, because the cremation memorials of the naughties interpenetrate 19th-century graves in the churchyard, but they also are situated in a far corner of the churchyard extension.

Visiting the Gresford Mining Memorial

The Gresford Mining Disaster of 22nd September 1934, in which the lives of 266 men and boys were lost, permeates the landscape. As well as the juxtaposition of early modern memorials in the church with the memorial to the disaster, there is a memorial building in the churchyard extension. Before we headed home, we paid our respects to the nearby Gresford Disaster memorial at Pandy. A striking example of the reuse of the material traces as memorial foci. Here the focus is upon the pit wheel reused and made static by being fixed into a slate-built base. There is a plaque listing the names of the dead and a planter beneath it. We reflected on the various memorial locales that commemorate the Gresford Mining Disaster. In addition to the memorial, there are individual memorials in nearby churches and churchyards as well as the memorial building in the churchyard extension and Gresford church itself.

Throughout the exploration of church, churchyard, churchyard extension and mining memorial, I emphasised the complex interplay of building and rebuilding, remembering and forgetting, involved in understanding these mortuary spaces. The students will be using this and other sites to select their own ‘memoryscapes’ to explore in their research.