|In Search Of Gravestones Old And Curious|
W.T. (William Thomas) Vincent
"Reverence for the dead, especially among their known descendants, will generally operate as a check upon hasty or extravagant "improvements," and it may be expected that those responsible for the administration of local affairs will, for the most part, when they set about the beautification of their churchyard, decide to do what is necessary with no needless alterations. This plan of preservation, as already intimated, is probably the most desirable. But we know instances, especially in and around London, where good work has been done by judiciously thinning out the crop of tombstones, clearing away the least presentable features of the place, and making the ground prim with flower-beds and borders. To do this much, and to introduce a few seats, will leave the graveyard still a graveyard in the old sense, and requires no authority outside the church. It may be prudent to take a vote of the Vestry on the subject as a defence against irate parishioners, but, if nothing be done beyond a decorous renovation of the burial-ground, the matter is really one which is entirely within the functions of the parson and churchwardens. Moreover, although it is not generally known, the expenses of such works are a legal charge against the parish, provided the churchwardens have had the previous countenance of their colleagues the overseers. The account for the due and proper maintenance of the disused churchyard may be sent to the Burial Board, if there be such a board, and, if not, to the overseers, and the cost will in any case fall upon the poor-rate. Converting the ground absolutely into a public garden is quite a different matter, and, notwithstanding its difficulties, it is the course usually adopted. First, the consent of the Vestry is imperative, and every step is carefully measured by a stringent Act of Parliament. A petition for a faculty must be presented to the Bishop of the diocese, and before it can be granted there must be an official enquiry in public before the Diocesan Chancellor—always a profound lawyer, learned in ecclesiastical jurisprudence. Everybody who has any claim or objection as to any particular grave-space, or to the whole scheme altogether, has a right to be heard; all reasonable requests are usually granted, and the closing order, if made, is mostly full of conditions and reservations in favour of surviving relatives and others who have shewn cause for retaining this tomb and that stone undisturbed. In practice it is found that there are not very many such claims, but it sometimes happens that serious obstacles are left standing in the way of the landscape gardener. One almost invariable regulation requires that places shall be found within the enclosure for all the old stones in positions where they can be seen and their inscriptions read; to range them in one or more rows against the interior of the boundary fence is usually accepted as compliance with this rule.
Injudicious arrangement occasionally obscures some of the inscriptions, but they are all accessible if required, and anything is better than extinction. It is earnestly to be hoped that at least equal care is taken of the memorials in burial-grounds which are less ceremoniously closed. Where the work is thoughtfully conceived and discreetly accomplished, much good and little harm is done to a populous place by clearing the ground, laying out footpaths, and planting trees and flowers. But the gravestone, the solemn witness "Sacred to the Memory" of the dead, is a pious trust which demands our respect and protection, at least so long as it is capable of proclaiming its mission. When it has got past service and its testimony has been utterly effaced by time, it is not so easy to find arguments for its preservation. There is no sense or utility in exhibiting a blank tablet, and I have seen without scruple or remorse such superannuated vestiges employed in repairing the church fabric. But this, be it understood, is only when the stone is irretrievably beyond memento mori service, and on the clear condition that it is employed in the furtherance of religious work. It is true that a stone is only a stone, whatever it may have been used for, but a peculiar sanctity is in most minds associated with the grave, and we ought not to run the risk of shocking tender-hearted people by degrading even the dead memorial of the dead to profane and secular purposes. And yet, what has become in too many cases of the old gravestones?
|© Godric Godricson|
|Argotti Botanic Gardens & Herbarium|
© Godric Godricson
The very old ones we may perhaps account for, but where are the middle-aged ones of the eighteenth century? It cannot be doubted, alas, that they have in many churchyards been deliberately taken away and destroyed to make room for new ones. Districts comprising many parishes may be pointed out with all their old churches in the midst of their old churchyards, but without one old gravestone standing. The rule and practice have been to quietly remove the relics of the forgotten sires in order to dig new graves for a new generation. The habit, as just said, rules by districts, and this is the case in most matters connected with the subject of this essay. It is a general and remarkable truth that "good" and "bad" churchyards abound in groups. The force of example or the instinct of imitation may explain the fact, but it affords a sad reflection upon the morality of the burial-place.