Yesterday I went cycling with my son and ended up, as one does, at a local churchyard: Holy Trinity, Gwersyllt.

My 4-year-old was keen to explore the memorials (not sure where he finds his inspiration for this kind of morbid fascination with gravestones). He also wanted to photograph them.  So I gave him my mobile phone and showed him how to take photos with and left him to it. Some were blurred but most of the 57 were in focus and show dimensions of a modern churchyard and its memorials.

It would be pretentious of me in the extreme to claim my four-year-old boy has some special insight into the art of memorial photography: on the contrary my point is the opposite. Still, by choosing what to photograph and positioning himself accordingly, using a very basic camera and taking photographs of memorials, Toby’s pics tell us much about mortuary commemoration. Moreover, the very fact that he often photographed fragments of gravestones and elements that might not be readily comprehensible on their own, provides a different insight into the churchyard and the relationships between memorials rather than single memorials as isolated material entities. 

He is photographing the typical as much as the exceptional. Likewise, his short stature provides a different physical perspective in itself. Therefore, while lacking experience and a distinctive informed purpose, his photos are far from random but focus on material elements he thought worth recording. Those that are seemingly utterly random still have things to tell us about modern mortuary commemorative practice.

NOTE: this photography took place in the 19th and early-mid 20th-century areas of the cemetery, although there are gravestones with inscriptions to those who passed away more recently. As a mark of respective, we steered clear of the more recent graves of the last 25 years.

Here are the first results. I add my commentary, not to impose intentions on the photographer, but to reveal what can be said from fragmentary data: a common challenge for all mortuary archaeologists.

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Image 1: Badly taken pic, but it still makes a point. So much photography in churchyards is across and down, not up. I’m not making a spiritual point here, but the entire importance of graves, their vertical rising from the earth, is in part an attempt to communicate with the living, but also to articulate aspirations to an heavenly afterlife abode. Also, trees, usually evergreen (yew in particular) are a key part of cemetery topography, serve as canopy and context, medium and message for commemoration.
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Image 2; I like this photo since it focuses on part of an early 20th-century kerb with fabric flowers, presumably broken by the elements and strewn across it. It reflects the nature of disorder in the churchyard, despite our efforts to manage them. Equally, it denotes the ephemeralia that constitute the acts to commemorate the contemporary dead.
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Image 3: A wonderful low-level perspective on iron railings around a coped gravestone. This photograph draws attention to the iron and the three different types of stone used in this one monument; their varying coloursand different textures.
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Image 4: Here we see another juxtaposition of gravestone and yew, framing the sky, reflecting my points about image 1.
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Image 5: This close-up strikes me in two ways. Look at the memorial masons’ close attention to replication of the original mid-20th-century inlaid text in the addition of names from the 1990s and how the patina reveals the break between older and newer text. Also, I love the phrase ‘Waiting in a Holy Stillness’, since it configures a sense of peace but also waiting for the living relatives to join with Elsie.
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Image 6: A well-maintained and clearly cleaned memorial with a few points of note from me. First, the missing letters: the ‘I’ in ‘THIS’ and the ‘R’ in ‘YEARS’. Second, the use of an address to define someone in place and with a common name.
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Image 7: Look at the elaborate gothic lettering for the first names. Also, the striking contrast in legibility between those letters with surviving inlay and those without.
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Image 8: Colour: the stark contrast between the grey concrete and the flowers.
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Image 9: the church under scaffolding, a typical cross, and a rare shot of me in a churchyard. The sunlight and the stark grey of everything, broken only by the flowers in Image 8.
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Image 10: Using text is broken by damage and wear, here it is by the bad photography. Yet the absences reveal how we patch a narrative from fragments: a common strategy of all archaeology. We don’t have all the letters and yet there is still much we can say about the memorial formula, her name, place of birth, date of birth and death and location of her death.
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