A Haunter of Churchyards, by W. H.
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:
HERE IS MY HOPE TILL TRVMP
SHALL SOVND AND CHRIST
FOR MEE DOTH CALL THEN
SHALL I RISE FROM DEATH
TO LIFE NOE MORETO
DYE AT ALL
HERE LIES THE BODY OF ROBET
WANESBROVGH THE SD
E O ED
OF Y NAME W DEPART THIS
LIFE DEC Y 9TH AODNI 1675
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
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,
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
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
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
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.