Gravestones & Graveyards

I have recently been involved in some fascinating discussions on this topic on both sides of the Atlantic, and thought it might be helpful to do a brief history of how English churchyards changed.

For centuries, only the very rich were buried inside churches, their wealth – or generosity to the church – indicated by their proximity to the altar. This continued till quite recently as my research on Samuel Gist as lord of the manor and patron was buried in the crypt of his church and his memorial on the wall to the left of the altar. In the churchyard the poor were generally buried in unmarked graves, but I have found as few records of complaints that beasts were grazing there and disturbing the dead, in particular clerics were noted for this abuse. Here’s a picture – I think it’s called home from the sea showing a young sailor grieving and in the background the growth of brambles over a grave to keep animals away. In Kilvert’s diary he wrote of the Good Friday tradition of grave dressing, where families would plant flowers on family graves on Good Friday, echoing the mourning at the death of Christ.

home from the sea

By the 18th century, head stones became more common in churches and graveyards; where the ground was crowded there were sometimes also foot stones which recorded only the initials of the departed and their dates, which have sometimes been confused with grave markers for the poor. Elizabeth Cotton included this in her song ‘Freight Train with: “Put a stone at my head and feet and tell my friends I have gone to sleep.”


gravestones st barbara

But as urbanisation progressed, graveyards became crowded and tombstones unstable so in some parishes orders were passed banning vertical stones, but this allowed slabs to become bigger, often to cover the whole grave. But this prevented air getting into graves to allow the natural processes of decay so probably fuelled the spread of diseases. Body snatching was also a problem especially where medical schools or surgeons were established. This seems to have created the ‘body snatcher stone’ which was placed on a new grave long enough for the body to become too old for dissection. It was then moved to the next new grave.

body snatcher stone

In St Mary’s churchyard in Bath, the stone rests on the last grave before the 1832 Anatomy Act was passed which made it legal to dissect bodies. The stealing of a body was not itself illegal – it was the shroud, so if the snatchers threw it back they could not be prosecuted. Many towns and cities had problems with finding space for burials, and some were moved and/or emptied at various times. Reports were made of churches being full of flies from the bodies decaying beneath the floors and the bad odours discouraged church attendance. The 1848 Health in Towns Act led to the closure of many urban churchyards and the construction of cemeteries on the outskirts which were landscaped and allowed larger tombstones and crypts, often out of different materials which allowed memorials to become more varied. another leap forward came with the railways when granite became more affordable, which made memorials more ornate and durable.

It seems the snatcher stone established a fashion for grave covers, which provided more space for details and made foot stones unnecessary.

slab tomb

And now almost anything goes, such as this mysterious tombstone. Is it a portal to another realm?

mystery tomb

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