A Haunter of Churchyards, by W. H. Hudson

I said a little while ago that when staying at a village I am apt to become a haunter of its churchyard; but I go not to it in the spirit of our well-beloved Mr. Pecksniff. He, it will be remembered, was accustomed to take an occasional turn among the tombs in the graveyard at Amesbury, or wherever it was, to read and commit to memory the pious and admonitory phrases he found on the stones, to be used later as a garnish to his beautiful, elevating talk. The attraction for me, which has little to do with inscriptions, was partly stated in the last sketch, and I may come to it again by-and-by.

Nevertheless, I cannot saunter or sit down among these memorials without paying some attention to the lettering on them, and always with greatest interest in those which time and weather and the corrosive lichen have made illegible. The old stones that are no longer visited, on which no fresh-gathered flower is ever laid, which mark the last resting-places of the men and women who were once the leading members of the little rustic community, and are now forgotten for ever, whose bones for a century past have been crumbling to dust. And the children's children, and remoter descendants of these dead, where are they? since one refuses to believe that they inhabit this land any longer. Under what suns, then, by what mountains and what mighty rivers, on what great green or sun-parched plains and in what roaring cities in far-off continents? They have forgotten; they have no memory nor tradition of these buried ones, nor perhaps even know the name of this village where they lived and died. Yet we believe that something from these same dead survives in them—something, too, of the place, the village, the soil, an inherited memory and emotion. At all events we know that, wheresoever they may be, that their soul is English still, that they will hearken to their mother's voice when she calls and come to her from the very ends of the earth.

As to the modern stones with inscriptions made so plain that you can read them at a distance of twenty yards, one cultivates the art of not seeing them, since if you look attentively at them and read the dull formal inscription, the disgust you will experience at their extreme ugliness will drive you from the spot, and so cause you to miss some delicate loveliness lurking there, like a violet "half hidden from the eye." But I need not go into this subject here, as I have had my say about it in a well-known book—Hampshire Days.

The stones I look at are of the seventeenth, eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries, for even down to the fifties of last century something of the old tradition lingered on, and not all the stones were shaped and lettered in imitation of an auctioneer's advertisement posted on a barn door.

In reading the old inscriptions, often deciphered with difficulty after scraping away the moss and lichen, we occasionally discover one that has the charm of quaintness, or which touches our heart or sense of humour in such a way as to tempt us to copy it into a note-book.

In this way I have copied a fair number, and in glancing over my old note-books containing records of my rambles and observations, mostly natural history, I find these old epitaphs scattered through them. But I have never copied an inscription with the intention of using it. And this for the sufficient reason that epitaphs collected in a book do not interest me or anyone. They are in the wrong place in a book and cannot produce the same effect as when one finds and spells them out on a weathered stone or mural tablet out or inside a village church. It is the atmosphere—the place, the scene, the associations, which give it its only value and sometimes make it beautiful and precious. The stone itself, its ancient look, half-hidden in many cases by ivy, and clothed over in many-coloured moss and lichen and aerial algae, and the stonecutter's handiwork, his lettering, and the epitaphs he revelled in—all this is lost when you take the inscription away and print it. Take this one, for instance, as a specimen of a fairly good seventeenth-century epitaph, from Shrewton, a village on Salisbury Plain, not far from Stonehenge:


It would not be very interesting to put this in a book:

  Here is my hope till trump shall sound
    And Christ for me doth call,
  Then shall I rise from death to life
    No more to die at all.

But it was interesting to find it there, to examine the old lettering and think perhaps that if you had been standing at the elbow of the old lapidary, two and a half centuries ago, you might have given him a wrinkle in the economising of space and labour. In any case, to find it there in the dim, rich interior of that ancient village church, to view it in a religious or reverent mood, and then by-and-by in the dusty belfry to stumble on other far older memorials of the same family, and finally, coming out into the sunny churchyard, to come upon the same name once more in an inscription which tells you that he died in 1890, aged 88. And you think it a good record after nine generations, and that the men who lie under these wide skies on these open chalk downs do not degenerate.

I have copied these inscriptions for a purpose of my own, just as one plucks a leaf or a flower and drops it between the pages of a book he is reading to remind him on some future occasion, when by chance he finds it again on opening the book at some future time, of the scene, the place, the very mood of the moment.

Now, after all said, I am going to quote a few of my old gleanings from gravestones, not because they are good of their kind—my collection will look poor and meagre enough compared with those that others have made—but I have an object in doing it which will appear presently in the comments.

Always the best epitaphs to be found in books are those composed by versifiers for their own and the reading public's amusement, and always the best in the collection are the humorous ones.

The first collection I ever read was by the Spanish poet, Martinez de la Rosa, and although I was a boy then, I can still remember one:

  Aqui Fray Diego reposa,
  Jamas hiso otra cosa.

Which, translated literally, means:

  Here Friar James reposes:
  He never did anything else.

This does well enough on the printed page, but would shock the mind if seen on a gravestone, and perhaps the rarest of all epitaphs are the humorous ones. But one is pleased to meet with the unconsciously humorous; the little titillation, the smile, is a relief, and does not take away the sense of the tragedy of life and the mournful end.

A good specimen of the unconsciously humorous epitaph is on a stone in the churchyard at Maddington, a small village in the Wiltshire Downs, dated 1843:

  These few lines have been procured
  To tell the pains which he endured,
  He was crushed to death by the fall
  Of an old mould'ring, tottering wall.
  All ye young people that pass by
  Remember this and breathe a sigh,
  Lord, let him hear thy pard'ning voice
  And make his broken bones rejoice.

A better one, from the little village of Mylor, near Falmouth, has I fancy been often copied:

  His foot it slipped and he did fall,
  Help! help! he cried, and that was all.

And still a better one I found in the churchyard of St. Margaret's at
Lynn, to John Holgate, aged 27, who died in 1712:

  He hath gained his port and is at ease,
  And hath escapt ye danger of ye seas,
  His glass is run his life is gone,
  Which to my thought never did no man no wronge.

That last line is remarkable, for although its ten slow words have apparently fallen by chance into that form and express nothing but a little negative praise of their subject, they say something more by implication. They conceal a mournful protest against the cruelty and injustice of his lot, and remind us of the old Italian folk-song, "O Barnaby, why did you die?" With plenty of wine in the house and salad in the garden, how wrong, how unreasonable of you to die! But even while blaming you in so many words, we know, O Barnaby, that the decision came not from you, and was an outrage, but dare not say so lest he himself should be listening, and in his anger at one word should take us away too before our time. It is unconsciously humorous, yet with the sense of tears in it.

But there is no sense of tears in the unconscious humour of the solemn or pompous epitaph composed by the village ignoramus.

A century ago the village idiot was almost always a member of the little rustic community, and was even useful to it in two distinct ways. He was "God's Fool," and compassion and sweet beneficent instinct, or soul growths, flourished the more for his presence; and secondly, he was a perpetual source of amusement, a sort of free cinema provided by Nature for the children's entertainment. I am not sure that his removal has not been a loss to the little rural centres of life.

Side by side with the village idiot there was the pompous person who could not only read a book, but could put whole sentences together and even make rhymes, and who on these grounds took an important part in the life of the community. He was not only adviser and letter-writer to his neighbours, but often composed inscriptions for their gravestones when they were dead. But in the best specimen of this kind which I have come upon, I feel pretty sure, from internal evidence, that the buried man had composed his own epitaph, and probably designed the form of the stone and its ornamentation. I found this stone in the churchyard of Minturne Magna, in Dorset. The stone was five feet high and four and a half broad—a large canvas, so to speak. On the upper half a Tree of Knowledge was depicted, with leaves and apples, the serpent wound about the trunk, with Adam and Eve standing on either side. Eve is extending her arm, with an apple in her open hand, to Adam, and he, foolish man, is putting out a hand to take it. Then follows the extraordinary inscription:

    Here lyeth the Body
    Of Richard Elambert,
    Late of Holnust, who died
  June 6, in the year 1805, in the
    100 year of his age.
  Neighbours make no stay,
  Return unto the Lord,
  Nor put it off from day to day,
  For Death's a debt ye all must pay.
  Ye knoweth not how soon,
  It may be the next moment,
  Night, morning or noon.
  I set this as a caution
  To my neighbours in rime,
  God give grace that you
  May all repent in time.
  For what God has decreed,
  We surely must obey,
  For when please God to send
  His death's dart into us so keen,
  O then we must go hence
  And be no more here seen.


    Handy lyeth here
    Dianna Elambert,
  Which was my only daughter dear,
    Who died Jan. 10, 1776,
    In the 18th year of her age.

Poor Diana deserved a less casual word!

Enough of that kind. The next to follow is the quite plain, sensible, narrative inscription, with no pretension to fine diction, albeit in rhyme. Oddly enough the most perfect example I have found is in the churchyard at Kew, which seems too near to London:

  Here lyith the bodies of Robert and Ann
  Plaistow, late of Tyre, Edghill, in Warwickshire,
  Dyed August 23, 1728.
  At Tyre they were born and bred
  And in the same good lives they led,
  Until they come to married state,
  Which was to them most fortunate.
  Near sixty years of mortal life
  They were a happy man and wife,
  And being so by Nature tyed
  When one fell sick the other dyed,
  And both together laid in dust
  To await the rising of the just.
  They had six children born and bred,
  And five before them being dead,
  Their only then surviving son
  Hath caused this stone for to be done.

After this little masterpiece I will quote no other in this class.

After copying some scores of inscriptions, we find that there has always been a convention or fashion in such things, and that it has been constantly but gradually changing during the last three centuries. Very few of the seventeenth century, which are the best, are now decipherable, out of doors at all events. In an old graveyard you will perhaps find two or three among two or three hundred stones, yet you believe that two to three hundred years ago the small space was as thickly peopled with stones as now. The two or three or more that have not perished are of the very hardest kind of stone, and the old letters often show that they were cut with great difficulty. We also find that apart from the convention of the age or time, there were local conventions or fashions. In some parts of the South of England you find numbers of enormous stones five feet high and nearly as broad. This mode has long vanished. But you find a resemblance in the inscriptions as well. Thus, wherever the Methodists obtained a firm hold on the community, you find the spirit of ugliness appearing in the village churchyard from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards, when the old ornate and beautiful stones with figures of winged cherubs bearing torches, scattering flowers or blowing trumpets, were the usual decorations, giving place to the plain or ugly stone with its square ugly lettering and the dull monotonous form of the inscription. "To the memory of Mr. Buggins of this parish, who died on February 27th, 1801, aged 67." And then, to save trouble and expense, a verse from a hymn, or the simple statement that he is asleep in Jesus, or is awaiting the resurrection.

I am inclined to blame Methodism for these horrors simply because it is, as we know, the cult of ugliness, but there may have been another cause for the change; it was perhaps to some extent a reaction against the stilted, the pompous and silly epitaph which one finds most common in the first half of the eighteenth century.

Here is a perfect specimen which I found at St. Just, in Cornwall, to a
Martin Williams, 1771:

  Life's but a snare, a Labyrinth of Woe
  Which wretched Man is doomed to struggle through.
  To-day he's great, to-morrow he's undone,
  And thus with Hope and Fear he blunders on,
  Till some disease, or else perhaps old Age
  Calls us poor Mortals trembling from the Stage.

An amusing variant of one of the commoner forms of that time appears at
Lelant, a Cornish village near St. Ives:

  What now you are so once was me,
  What now I am that you will be,
  Therefore prepare to follow me.

No less remarkable in grammar as in the identical or perfect rhyme in the first and third lines. The author or adapter could have escaped this by making the two first the expression of the person buried beneath, and the third the comment from the outsider, as follows:

Therefore prepare to follow she,

It was a woman, I must say.

This form of epitaph is quite common, and I need not give here more examples from my notes, but the better convention coming down from the preceding age goes on becoming more and more modified all through the eighteenth, and even to the middle of the nineteenth century.

The following from St. Erth, a Cornish village, is a most suitable inscription on the grave of an old woman who was a nurse in the same family from 1750 to 1814:

  Time rolls her ceaseless course; the race of yore
  That danced our infancy on their knee
  And told our wondering children Legends lore
  Of strange adventures haped by Land and Sea,
  How are they blotted from the things that be!

There are many beautiful stones and appropriate inscriptions during all that long period, in spite of the advent of Mr. Buggins and his ugliness, and the charm and pathos is often in a phrase, a single line, as in this from St. Keverne, 1710, a widow's epitaph on her husband:

Rest here awhile, thou dearest part of me.

But let us now get back another century at a jump, to the Jacobean and Caroline period. And for these one must look as a rule in interiors, seeing that, where exposed to the weather, the lettering, if not the whole stone, has perished. Perhaps the best specimen of the grave inscription, lofty but not pompous, of that age which I have met with is on a tablet in Ripon Cathedral to Hugh de Ripley, a locally important man who died in 1637:

  Others seek titles to their tombs
  Thy deeds to thy name prove new wombes
  And scutcheons to deck their Herse
  Which thou need'st not like teares and vers.
  If I should praise thy thriving witt
  Or thy weighed judgment serving it
  Thy even and thy like straight ends
  Thy pitie to God and to friends
  The last would still the greatest be
  And yet all jointly less than thee.
  Thou studiedst conscience more than fame
  Still to thy gathered selfe the same.
  Thy gold was not thy saint nor welth
  Purchased by rapine worse than stealth
  Nor did'st thou brooding on it sit
  Not doing good till death with it.
  This many may blush at when they see
  What thy deeds were what theirs should be.
  Thou'st gone before and I wait now
  T'expect my when and wait my how
  Which if my Jesus grant like thine
  Who wets my grave's no friend of mine.

Rather too long for my chapter, but I quote it for the sake of the last four lines, characteristic of that period, the age of conceits, of the love of fantasticalness, of Donne, Crashaw, Vaughan.

A jump from Ripon of 600 odd miles to the little village of Ludgvan, near Penzance, brings us to a tablet of nearly the same date, 1635, and an inscription conceived in the same style and spirit. It is interesting, on account of the name of Catherine Davy, an ancestress of the famous Sir Humphry, whose marble statue stands before the Penzance Market House facing Market Jew Street.

  Death shall not make her memory to rott
  Her virtues were too great to be forgott.
  Heaven hath her soul where it must still remain
  The world her worth to blazon forth her fame
  The poor relieved do honour and bless her name.
  Earth, Heaven, World, Poor, do her immortalize
  Who dying lives and living never dies.

Here is another of 1640:

  Here lyeth the body of my Husband deare
  Whom next to God I did most love and fear.
  Our loves were single: we never had but one
  And so I'll be although that thou art gone.

Which means that she has no intention of marrying again. Why have I set this inscription down? Solely to tell how I copied it. I saw it on a brass in the obscure interior of a small village church in Dorset, but placed too high up on the wall to be seen distinctly. By piling seven hassocks on top of one another I got high up enough to read the date and inscription, but before securing the name I had to get quickly down for fear of falling and breaking my neck. The hassocks had added five feet to my six.

The convention of that age appears again in the following inscription from a tablet in Aldermaston church, in that beautiful little Berkshire village, once the home of the Congreves:

  Like borne, like new borne, here like dead they lie,
  Four virgin sisters decked with pietie
  Beauty and other graces which commend
  And made them like blessed in the end.

Which means they were very much like each other, and were all as pure in heart as new-born babes, and that they all died unmarried.

Where the epitaph-maker of that time occasionally went wrong was in his efforts to get his fantasticalness in willy-nilly, or in a silly play upon words, as in the following example from the little village of Boyton on the Wylie river, on a man named Barnes, who died in 1638:

  Stay Passenger and view a stack of corne
  Reaped and laid up in the Almighty's Barne
  Or rather Barnes of Choyce and precious grayne
  Put in his garner there still to remaine.

But in the very next village—that of Stockton—I came on the best I have found of that time. It is, however, a little earlier in time, before fantasticalness came into fashion, and in spirit is of the nobler age. It is to Elizabeth Potecary, who died in 1590.

  Here she interred lies deprived of breath
  Whose light of virtue once on Earth did shyne
  Who life contemned ne feared ghostly death
  Whom worlde ne worldlye cares could cause repine
  Resolved to die with hope in Heaven placed
  Her Christ to see whom living she embraced
  In paynes most fervent still in zeal most strong
  In death delighting God to magnifye
  How long will thou forgett me Lord! this cry
  In greatest pangs was her sweet harmonye
  Forgett thee? No! he will not thee forgett
  In books of Lyfe thy name for aye is set.

And with Elizabeth Potecary, that dear lady dead these three centuries and longer, I must bring this particular Little Thing to an end.