Driving to Christ in the cemetery

I’m just back from a short trip to Dublin. I had the honour and pleasure of being this academic year’s Inaugural Lecture for the University College Dublin Archaeology Society. I received a flattering welcome and pleasant but rightly critical reception to a second outing for my ideas on Cyborg Smiths. I then was given a congenial wine reception followed by three-course dinner in a restaurant on the city.

I subsequently spent two days visiting some familiar and important Irish heritage sites and monuments in Co. Meath. I had the offer of seeing new places I hadn’t been before under expert local guidance and next time I’m over in Ireland I will be very keen to take up these offers. However, I was very keen on this first trip back to Ireland in over a decade, to revisit some classic sites that had previously visited in the age before I owed a good digital camera. The pace and character of my visits would not have suited a standard tour with local archaeologists I confess; I spent a tedious amount of time photographing monuments from all angles to satisfy my interests in both medieval and modern mortuary and commemorative practice.

Jesus as single motif, but bicolour!

One of the places I stopped off at was a modern cemetery, just on the outskirts of Navan: St Mary’s cemetery on the Boyne Road. The cemetery is roughly square and follows a grid layout on the south-east side of the road, which itself runs WSW-ENE along the top of ridge to the south of the River Boyne. This is a parish cemetery, supported by grants by Meath County Council, and a scan of the burial records online shows that the earliest graves date from the 1910s. Every July, the cemetery attracts thousands to bless the graves, and I can see why.

Two Jesuses and a Mary. These with and without roses…

I had expected to encounter far more religious iconography in Irish cemeteries than in UK ones, and I was not disappointed. There is a centrally located crucifix, located at the far end of the central drive from the main gate. More than this distinctive feature (compared to the war memorials of many town cemeteries in the UK), I was struck but the replication of standardised motifs on individual graves. For while this also happens in the UK, the ubiquity of Jesus en face motifs, and crucifixion scenes, is powerful and striking. There are also quite a few Mary motifs too, hardly surprising either.

Another Jesus pair, same motif, same shaped gravestone, but different colour and different side-motifs and contrasting scripts.

As an archaeologist, I am interested in replication of standardised motifs within cemeteries, in this case both Jesus and Mary.

Are these corporate Jesuses, or buddy Jesuses? Replicative or idiosyncratic Marys?

At first impression, it might seem cheap and anonymous  – the same Jesus and Mary appearing again and again displaying either a conservative mourners or  a lack of imagination. However, the exact same motif is in each case being recontextualised upon different graves. In this context, the same motifs have different associations: personal Jesuses and personal Marys.

A Jesus and Mary chain of memorials

Each Jesus and Mary motif is associated with different materials, grave-stone shapes and texts to compose unique memorials for an individual or family. Therefore, the Jesus and Mary motifs on memorials at St Mary’s are a classic example of the infinite variability within seemingly similar uses of popular motifs in mortuary media. While Jesus is identical, upon each gravestone he is born again in subtly different fashions. The cumulative result is a complex chain of Jesus and Mary motifs punctuating the cemetery landscape in a fashion rarely seen in British cemeteries.