Graveyards are, for those of a sombre bent, a useful way of reflecting on mortality. And the older they are, the better, though there’s an awful melancholy in the number of little graves of children in these places: “died young”, they say with heartbreaking brevity on gravestones in my home cemetery.
But being buried in a churchyard – the most egalitarian communal space on earth – does have its limitations. You can’t be overly individualistic in these places; there are rules that constrain what you can and can’t say on the gravestones, not to mention their size and shape.
That much was evident in a ruling in the Church of England’s consistory court recently when Judge Stephen Eyre QC, chancellor of the Diocese of Lichfield, banned a grieving widower, John Chadfield, from inscribing what he wanted on the tomb of his wife, Elaine, who died in 2017 and is buried in the church of St Leonard’s in Alton. He took exception to his use of the words, “my” much loved wife and “our” two boys as being overly personal; he also barred him inscribing an abbreviated version of Byron’s verse, “So we’ll go no more a roving”.
Actually, I’d have done the same on the basis it was a rather clumsy version of the poem, cut to fit, but in Mr Eyre’s case, the judge considered the “passage from Byron is part of a secular poem which conveys no suggestion of Christian resurrection hope”. Given what you can get away with in godless graveyards, this is bracing stuff.
Personally I cheered on Mr Eyre, though I still think that he erred in allowing Mr Chadfield to erect a wedge-shaped, rough-hewn headstone (which the diocesan advisory committee had objected to).
I love epitaphs; an hour well spent is wandering round an Anglican cathedral reading aloud from the flowery ones set into the wall. There is a difference, perhaps, in the tone of Catholic and Protestant epitaphs – literally, things written on a tomb. Catholics want the passer-by to pray for the souls of the deceased. Protestants obviously don’t, though for us and them there is the same “sure and certain hope of the resurrection”.
There’s a warning note to many of them about the vanity of earthly hopes and pomps in the light of the fate that awaits us all. Many, in fact, in tone recall the story that was painted on the walls of medieval churches, that of the Four Living and the Four Dead. It told of four horsemen out hunting, who encountered four spectral horsemen who spoke to them: “Such as you are/ so once were we; as we are now/ so shall you be.”
It is what the dead have always said to the living.
The golden age of the epitaph was from the late 17th to early 19th century, in Anglican churches. Not all of them focus on Christian hope, as Mr Eyre suggests. There are any number of published collections of moving, humorous or mordant epitaphs from churches and churchyards. Some ran to several editions in the Victorian period when they were regarded as whimsical rather than exemplary.
Samuel Johnson’s celebrated essay on epitaphs declares that “the principal intention of epitaphs is to perpetuate the examples of virtue, that the tomb of a good man may supply the want of his presence, and veneration for his memory produce the same effect as the observation of his life. Those epitaphs are, therefore, the most perfect, which set virtue in the strongest light, and are best adapted to exalt the reader’s ideas, and rouse his emulation.”
So the purpose is to improve the onlooker in reference to the deceased, and Dr Johnson recommends that the inscription be specifically related to his qualities rather than merely general. David Garrick’s epitaph for Hogarth – in a churchyard in Chiswick – is my favourite; it begins:
Farewell great painter of mankind, who reached the noblest point of art, Whose pictured morals charm the mind, and through the eye correct the heart.
But there’s an entire class of epitaphs that are a warning to onlookers, or a series of merciless puns on the name of the deceased or the manner of his death; quite often truth breaks through the decent reticence of De mortuis nil nisi bonum.
In Hadleigh church in Suffolk, a widower inscribed:
To free me from domestic strife, Death call’d at my house – but he spoke with my wife. Susan, wife of David Patison, lies here, Stop Reader! And if not in a hurry, shed a tear.
Epitaphs are the finest memento mori, and if we don’t have many memorable ones now – modern inscriptions are overwhelmingly sentimental – it’s not only because cremation stones don’t give much room. It may be because we flinch from contemplating the end to which we must all come. If you don’t have Christian resurrection hope, naturally you don’t care to dwell on death.
Melanie McDonagh works for the London Evening Standard