Studies of mortuary monuments and landscapes might often unwittingly or deliberately pay too much attention to exceptional graves which might stand out from the crowd in terms of their size, scale, form, material and/or their commemorative subjects. Striking and unusual, wealthy and distinctive memorials might attract the attention today, and sometimes this is a deception caused by the destruction, damage and clearance of other graves. In other instances, however, this is not a situation of differential or selective survival or investigative bias. On occasion, memorials offer stark contrasts with those around them today because they were always intended to do by their commemorators. In such instances, it is not their universal form, ornamentation, style or material that matters as much as hope they perform in context, as a strategy to make their memorial endeavours ‘better’, more prominent, more expressive or at least ‘distinctive’ from other created before them. There might be a emotional, religious, economic, socio-political or circumstantial motives for this, or a mixture of different factors at play.

Caerrhun churchyard

While archaeologists and historians should be wary of treating these exceptions as the rules, understanding them as exceptions can cast light on broader trends in funerary monumentality. Here’s one to illustrate this point: a monument like no other in its context. I speak of a monument I saw in a small rural Welsh churchyard – a tall pedestal tomb with a black urn at Caerhun, Gwynedd.

Multiple dimensions mark it distinctive in this churchyard, populated as it is by largely slate memorials, and a few pink granite ones. The key differences are its colour, its height, its form and its decoration: it comprises a neo-classical undraped urn towering over the grave plot in which it stands and the memorials about it.

The Owen memorial

On its eastern side, it bears inscriptions honouring four commemorative subjects, John and Mary Owen and their two sons, the first born son William and the younger son born two years later, John. Notably, it was raised to commemorate William who died in infancy at only 9 days. The succession of names appear is the order of their death, which I take to imply this is not a retrospective memorial: William dies very young, then his father in his 50s, then the second son in his 30s, and finally the mother, in her late 80s. This memorial therefore spans

IN MEMORY OF

WILLIAM,

INFANT SON OF

JOHN & MARY OWEN

TYN Y COED, EGLWYSBACK,

DIED OCTOBER 14, 1867,

Aged 9 Days.

Also

THE ABOVE JOHN OWEN

DIED FEBRUARY 12, 1888

Aged 51 Years.

Also

JOHN, THEIR BELOVED SON

(WHO DIED AT GLYN UCHA)

OCTOBER 7, 1910,

AGED 31 YEARS.

Also

THE ABOVE MARY OWEN,

WHO DIED AT BRON GAIN,

JULY 18, 1931, AGED 87 YEARS.

GOD IS LOVE.

the urn’s detail on the memorial

 

The upper inscription

 

the lower inscription

Spanning over 63 years, this memorial operates as a sombre yet prominent marker amidst a wide range of starkly different memorial forms. Another interesting feature I haven’t paid much attention to before is that two of the four individuals have their specific locations of death marked: the second son and mother. This is a distinctive feature and suggestive of a careful attention to their life stories and circumstances of death, otherwise untold.

I’m certainly drawn to the versatile and variable deployment of urns – initially an allusion to cremation in the neoclassical tradition but co-opted into European funerary monuments, becoming widespread on 18th-century church monuments and variably deployed in 19th-century churchyards and cemeteries. Yet it is clear they were used to make much more specific statements about memory and loss. Therefore, I wonder if wealth and social standing in the community along prompted this monument. I have a suspicion that the height and black urn are almost constructed in dramatic defiance to the fragile young age of its commemorative subject: thus the tomb appears as a particularly exorbitant and maudlin expression of loss prompted by the untimely demise of an infant, only 9 days old. Simultaneously, it can be suggested that a distinctive black urn takes on more than a generic symbolism of mourning and loss in this particular tomb. Indeed, while grandiose for the churchyard, the choice of an urn almost comes to imply it is a receptacle for the tiny body of the infant boy.