Wednesday, 1 August 2012

The Parish Churchyard

In Search Of Gravestones Old And Curious

W.T. (William Thomas) Vincent

Project Gutenburg
The simple Breton people are deeply religious, and their veneration for the dead is intense. They are frequently to be seen—men, women, and children—kneeling on the ground in their churchyards, praying among the graves. It may therefore be well believed that in the period of burial reform which overspread the Continent in the earlier part of the nineteenth century there was great opposition in Brittany to the establishment of remote cemeteries. The thought of burying elsewhere than in the parish churchyard was to the minds of the parishioners a species of impiety.

When reasoned with they would answer:
"Our fathers were buried here, and you would separate us from our dead. Let us be buried here, where our kinsfolk can see our graves from their windows, and the children can come at evening to pray."
In vain they were shewn the danger of accumulating corpses in a place which was usually in the centre of the population. They shook their heads and cried:
"Death comes only by the will of God."

Possibly, to some extent, this feeling is universal among mankind. There is in our hearts an innate reverence for the burial-place; we tread by instinct lightly over the sleeping-places of the dead, and look with silent awe upon their tombs. The feeling being part of our humanity, we might suppose it to be universal, and be apt to conclude that, in our more primitive churchyards at least, we should find some effort to preserve the whole or a large proportion of the memorials which are there dedicated to departed merit, hallowed by love and made sacred by sorrow. But it may truthfully be said that of all the headstones (not to speak alone of decorated headstones) which were set up prior to the beginning of the nineteenth century, by far the greater number have disappeared! Indeed the cases in which the old churchyards have been the objects of any care whatever are lamentably few, while attempts to preserve the old gravestones are almost unknown. The ordinary experience is to find the churchyard more or less neglected and forgotten, and the grey and aged stones either sinking into the earth or tottering to their fall. It cannot be imagined that the clergy, the wardens, and the sextons have failed to see these things; but they have, presumedly, more pressing matters to attend to, and it seems to be nobody's business to attend to such ownerless and worthless objects".

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