Gull on a Grave
Birds are not infrequent in mortuary environments, and they are also sometimes featured as symbols of mourning and spiritual ascent on gravestones as discussed here and here. For example, in the UK, pigeons are also used to denote those whose hobby was pigeon fancying.
In this rare instance though, a bird that for many Britons is seen as a pest – the herring gull – is portrayed on a gravestone! Now gulls are a nuisance for many living and working in coastal towns, especially when they’re nesting. They can also be a nightmare for visitors to heritage sites like Beaumaris Castle and seaside towns where they are likely to try to poo on you, steal your chips or (worst of all) grab your kids’ icecream as happened to me a while back at Conwy Castle.
However, context is everything! That’s what we say in archaeology. In many ways, this gravestone shows that very clearly. The gull here is not a generic evocation of the seaside or the sea, it is not a pesky chip-stealer or crapper on elderly relatives. Instead, it is perhaps a mnemonic meshing together many stories about the dead and their relationship to the living.
This is because, the text tells us clearly this was a man, born in war-torn Liverpool – one of the greatest maritime hubs of Britain – who became an officer in the merchant navy. Moreover, situated in a small Welsh churchyard, the grave speaks of the lifetime journeys and final resting place of this man. Therefore, we might imagine very personal stories attached to it, commemorating the grave of a merchant seaman, and the stories he would tell. The gull takes those visiting the grave both back in time, and across the waves…
This blog is about the material culture of death – past and present. I’ve discussed the ethics of photographing mortuary spaces and material cultures before, as in here. Occasionally I discuss modern crematoria, cemeteries, churchyards and other memorials and memorial spaces. This brings with it some ethical issues regarding commenting on the graves and memorials of the recently departed. In past posts, I’ve unashamedly photographed and posted images of these. In my view these were established in publicly accessible spaces with the express intention that they were to be viewed and appreciated, and perhaps commented on. However, graves are also private and intensely personal, intimate and emotive spaces, with stories that mean very specific things to those that mourn loved ones. So, in future, if I am focusing in detail on a very specific grave, I’m going to try not to mention precisely where it is, and pixelate out details of the person’s name and date of birth and death. This isn’t censorship, since their names and the precise day they died are not really the focus of my interest in any case. Instead, the medium and material culture of death is my focus.