Monday, April 24, 2006

Gravestones and mortality

click photo to enlarge
There's nothing like a walk in a graveyard to remind you of your own mortality! As you pass through the ranks of stone the shapes catch your eye first: plain rectanglular slabs, graves with curved and pointed tops, some with elegant pediments, and, dotted about, table tombs, crosses, weeping angels and multi-columned creations commemorating Victorian worthies.

Then the names jump out at you - some no longer used, but dimly remembered from religious education lessons: Obadiah, Jesse, Isaiah, Emmanuel. The ages at death draw your attention, particularly those of the young and the long-lived, but most of all those of your own age! And under the names and ages, often a phrase, a Bible quotation, or a piece of verse, sometimes touching, though more often doggerel. "Departed this life", "Fallen asleep", "Gone before" are common enough. But occasionally one comes across words written for the individual, as on an infant's grave at Lynton, Devon: "Opened my eyes, took a peep, Didn't like it, went to sleep".

The gravestones above are on the south side of the church of St Mary at Long Sutton, Lincolnshire, and date from the eighteenth century. They are lichen encrusted, and the soft stone is gently crumbling. But, through this patina of ages one can still see the classical cherubs and garlands, the relief panels and Ionic columns, and here and there a name to be deciphered. Carved skulls, sometimes with crossed bones, remind us that these people were more familiar with death than we are, knew its cruelty and necessity, and didn't hide it away.

I took this photograph on a dull, overcast day, impressed by the texture of the stones and the way the ragged rows mutely represented the long-dead townspeople. A little increase in contrast was necessary to bring out the detail, and I compressed the rows to emphasize the number of gravestones (unusual for this date) and the undulating patterns caused by settlement over the centuries.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen